Josephine Baker (June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975) was an American-born French dancer, singer, and actress who came to be known in various circles as the “Black Pearl,” “Bronze Venus” and even the “Creole Goddess”. Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine later became a citizen of France in 1937. She was fluent in both English and French.
Baker was the first African-American female to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou (1934) or to become a world-famous entertainer. Baker, who refused to perform for segregated audiences in America, is also noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. She was once offered unofficial leadership in the movement in the United States by Coretta Scott King in 1968, following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Baker, however, turned down the offer. She was also known for assisting the French Resistance during World War II, and received the French military honor, the Croix de guerre.
Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Carrie McDonald. Her estate identifies vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson as her natural father. Carrie and Eddie had a song-and-dance act, playing wherever they could get work, and when Josephine was about a year old they began to carry her onstage occasionally during their finale. Josephine was always poorly dressed and hungry, and her playground became the yards of Union Station. From this she developed her street smarts. When Baker was eight she began working as a live-in domestic for white families in St. Louis. She was sent to work for a woman who abused her, burning Baker’s hands when she put too much soap in the laundry.
Baker dropped out of school at the age of 12 and lived as a street child in the slums of St. Louis, sleeping in cardboard shelters and scavenging for food in garbage cans. Her street-corner dancing attracted attention and she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show at the age of 15. She then headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) with Adelaide Hall and ”The Chocolate Dandies” (1924). She performed as the last dancer in a chorus line, a position where the dancer traditionally performed in a comic manner, as if she were unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would perform it not only correctly but with additional complexity. Baker was then billed as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville”.