BlackFacts Details

Josephine Baker

Who Was Josephine Baker?

Josephine Baker was an African-American entertainer, civil-rights activist, and French military hero. Baker fled to Europe from deeply-segregated America and achieved super-stardom dancing exotically wearing only a skirt of 16 faux bananas. For her work as a spy during World War II, Baker received France"s highest military honors.

To voice her belief in racial harmony, Josephine Baker returned to America in 1963 to speak during the historic March on Washington.

She later adopted 12 children of various ethnicities, calling them the "Rainbow Tribe." Josephine Baker is considered the first black superstar for her 50-year career of thrilling entertainment.

Dates:  June 3, 1906 -- April 12, 1975

Also Known As: Tumpie, Black Venus, Black Pearl, Freda Josephine McDonald (born as)

Dancing and Dreaming

On June 3, 1906, Freda Josephine McDonald was born illegitimately to Carrie McDonald (a laundress) and Eddie Carson (a vaudeville drummer), on Gratiot Street in St. Louis, Missouri. Carrie nicknamed her roly-poly daughter “Tumpie” and birthed son Richard before Eddie abandoned his family shortly thereafter.

Desperate, Carrie soon married Arthur Martin, but he was chronically unemployed. Josephine walked daily two-miles to Soulard Market to scavenge food. Never enough money, not even for rent, the family roamed through St. Louis" slums for housing.

Turn-of-the-century St.

Louis was considered a major hub for musicians, such as Scott Joplin, who introduced ragtime. A good dancer, Josephine sometimes performed on street corners for money. She often credited St. Louis" music for providing an escape from her severe impoverishment.

Dreams on Hold

Carrie eventually pulled eldest child Josephine from school to work for white families.

At seven, Josephine became a live-in housekeeper for Mrs. Keiser, a wealthy white woman. Josephine was beaten constantly, nearly starved, and made to sleep in a crate with a dog.

The horrible arrangement ended when Josephine accidentally broke Keiser"s fancy plates.

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