Meet Josephine Baker The Pioneer Who Left A Legacy As The First Black Woman To Star In A Major Motion Picture

Baker’s Rise From St. Louis To International Stardom

Josephine Baker, a St. Louis native, made history in 1927 when she became the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture. She played the lead role of Papitou in the French silent film “Siren of the Tropics,” portraying a performer finding her true calling – much like Baker herself.

The film was a success, leading to other starring roles for Baker. She soon published an autobiography, had a doll made in her likeness, and even starred in a toothpaste commercial.

Baker’s journey to fame began in difficult circumstances. At age 11, she witnessed racial violence in East St. Louis, with Black homes being burned.

As she recalled: “We children stood huddled together in bewilderment…frightened to death with the screams of the Negro families running across this bridge with nothing but what they had on their backs as their worldly belongings.” After working on some Broadway choruses, she traveled to Paris, where her career took off dramatically.

Wartime Hero And Civil Rights Icon

During World War II, Baker aided the French Resistance against Nazi occupation. She socialized with German officers while secretly gathering intelligence for the Allies, even writing some messages in invisible ink on her sheet music. For her efforts, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre medal and other military honors after the war.

Upon returning to America, Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences, despite lucrative financial offers. She advocated against Willie McGee’s execution in Mississippi and was honored by the NAACP with a parade attended by 100,000 people in Harlem in 1951. In 1963, she was the only official female speaker at the March on Washington.

Leaving A Lasting Legacy

Baker adopted 12 children from around the world, calling them her “Rainbow Tribe” to embody human diversity. She continued performing at venues like Carnegie Hall and starred in a 1975 revue showcasing 50 years in show business. After receiving rave reviews, she suddenly died from a cerebral hemorrhage at age 68. Over 20,000 attended her funeral in France, where she was given full military honors.

Baker’s story was later depicted in an Emmy-winning HBO film, a Tony-winning Broadway musical, and more. In 2021, she was inducted into Paris’ Panthéon – the first Black woman given this esteemed national honor.