Josephine Baker was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. In 1927, Baker starred in the silent film Siren of the Tropics.
Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. As well as being an entertainer, Josephine was also a French Resistance agent and a civil rights activist. Her career was centered primarily in Europe, mostly in her adopted France. Josephine was a renowned dancer, and was among the most celebrated performers to headline the revues of the Folies Bergère in Paris. Her performance in the revue Un vent de folie in 1927 caused a sensation in Paris. Her costume, consisting of only a short skirt of artificial bananas and a beaded necklace, became an iconic image and a symbol of the Jazz Age and the 1920s.
Baker was dubbed the “Black Venus“, the “Black Pearl“, the “Bronze Venus“, and the “Creole Goddess“. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she renounced her U.S. citizenship and became a French national after her marriage to French industrialist Jean Lion in 1937.
She was known for aiding the French Resistance during World War II. After the war, she was awarded the Croix de guerre by the French military, and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States and is noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1968, she was offered unofficial leadership in the movement in the United States by Coretta Scott King, following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination however she declined the offer over concern for the safety of her children.
In April 1975, Baker performed at the Bobino Theater in Paris, in the first of a series of performances celebrating the 50th anniversary of her Paris debut. Just days later, on April 12, 1975, Baker died in her sleep of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was just 68.