Josephine Baker — American-born singer, dancer, and WWII spy — will be honored with a memorial at the Pantheon, France’s tomb of heroes in Paris. Baker will be the first Black woman, and one of only six women, to receive the honor.
French President Emmanuel Macron made the announcement on Monday, writing that Baker, who was born American and later chose France, “held high the motto of the French Republic.”
That motto is “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” – or liberty, equality, fraternity.
“World-renowned music hall artist, committed to the Resistance, tireless anti-racist activist, she was involved in all the fights that bring together citizens of goodwill, in France and around the world,” a statement from The Élysée Palace — the official residence of the President of the French Republic — explains. “For all these reasons, because she is the embodiment of the French spirit, Joséphine Baker today deserves the recognition of the motherland.”
The Pantheon houses the remains of French philosopher Voltaire, writer Victor Hugo, and other French luminaries. The other women at the Pantheon are French Holocaust survivor and noted politician Simone Veil, scientist Marie Curie, French Resistance fighters Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, and Sophie Berthelot, the wife of a famous chemist who was buried along with her husband, a CNN article explains.
After her death in 1975, Baker was buried in Monaco, dressed in a French military uniform with the medals she received for her role as part of the French Resistance during the war. Her body will remain buried in Monaco, but she will be honored with a memorial and plaque at the Pantheon on November 30, one of her children, Claude Bouillon-Baker, told the Agence France-Presse news agency, the BBC reports.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Baker later moved to New York City, where she participated in the celebration of Black life and art now known as the “Harlem Renaissance,” according to the National Women’s History Museum.
She later moved to Paris, where she became an even greater star. In 1937, Baker became a French citizen when she married industrialist Jean Lion.
When the German army invaded France during WWII, Baker joined the French Resistance. When she overheard conversations while performing in front of German officers, she would write the information in invisible ink on music sheets, and then pass those sheets on to French military officials.
During the war, Baker also hid refugees in her home in Paris.
In recognition for all of her wartime efforts, Baker received the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor—two of France’s highest military honors, a History.com article explains.
A Fight For Racial Equality
After the war, Baker returned to the U.S., where she was forced to “confront segregation and discrimination that she had not experienced since she was a child in St. Louis,” according to the National Women’s History Museum. “She often refused to perform to segregated audiences, which usually forced club owners to integrate for her shows.”
Baker was later recognized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for her continued opposition against segregation and discrimination. In 1963, she was one of the few women allowed to speak at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents,” Baker said in that speech, the National Women”s History Museum reports. “But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”