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Josephine Baker was a dancer and singer who became wildly popular in France during the 1920s. She also devoted much of her life to fighting racism.
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Capitalizing on this success, Baker sang professionally for the first time in 1930, and several years later landed film roles as a singer in Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam. The money she earned from her performances soon allowed her to purchase an estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac, in the southwest of France. She named the estate Les Milandes, and soon paid to move her family there from St. Louis.
In 1936, riding the wave of popularity she was enjoying in France, Baker returned to the United States to perform in the Ziegfield Follies, hoping to establish herself as a performer in her home country as well. However, she was met with a generally hostile, racist reaction and quickly returned to France, crestfallen at her mistreatment. Upon her return, Baker married French industrialist Jean Lion and obtained citizenship from the country that had embraced her as one of its own.
When World War II erupted later that year, Baker worked for the Red Cross during the occupation of France. As a member of the Free French forces she also entertained troops in both Africa and the Middle East. Perhaps most importantly, however, Baker did work for the French Resistance, at times smuggling messages hidden in her sheet music and even in her underwear. For these efforts, at the war’s end, Baker was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Resistance, two of France’s highest military honors.
Following the war, Baker spent most of her time at Les Milandes with her family. In 1947, she married French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon, and beginning in 1950 began to adopt babies from around the world. She adopted 12 children in all, creating what she referred to as her “rainbow tribe” and her “experiment in brotherhood.” She often invited people to the estate to see these children, to demonstrate that people of different races could in fact live together harmoniously.
During the 1950s, Baker frequently returned to the United States to lend her support to the Civil Rights Movement, participating in demonstrations and boycotting segregated clubs and concert venues. In 1963, Baker participated, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., in the March on Washington, and was among the many notable speakers that day. In honor of her efforts, the NAACP eventually named May 20th “Josephine Baker Day.”
After decades of rejection by her countrymen and a lifetime spent dealing with racism, in 1973 Baker performed at Carnegie Hall in New York and was greeted with a standing ovation. She was so moved by her reception that she wept openly before her audience. The show was a huge success and marked Baker’s comeback to the stage.
In April 1975, Josephine Baker performed at the Bobino Theater in Paris, in the first of a series of performances celebrating the 50th anniversary of her Paris debut. Numerous celebrities were in attendance, including Sophia Loren and Princess Grace of Monaco, who had been a dear friend to Baker for years.
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Many African-Americans left their country to escape the confines of racism, segregation and McCarthyism in the United States. As a result, an entirely new African-American subculture sprouted up in Europe, Africa and other countries abroad. A street in Paris is named after Josephine Baker, who found acceptance and fame in France that she couldn't achieve in the still-segregated United States. Marcus Garvey was a leader of the Back-to-Africa movement. And singer Nina Simone lived in several different countries, including Liberia, Switzerland, England and Barbados before eventually settling down in the South of France. Find out more about these African-American expats, and the new lives they made for themselves abroad, on Biography.com.
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