Josephine Baker: Singer, Dancer, Spy … and Pilot

Josephine Baker became a pilot for the French Forces Libres in Morocco. Courtesy: Consulate General of France in Miami

Entertainer, activist, and World War II spy Josephine Baker made history this week when she became the first Black woman to be honored at the Pantheon monument in France. 

Born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, Baker rose to fame in the 1930s as a singer and dancer and became a symbol of the Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance. 

But did you know she was also a pilot?

While Baker achieved a certain degree of fame in the U.S., she was an even greater sensation in Paris, where she drew wide acclaim after moving there in the late 1920s. Like other Black artists and performers of her time, she sought refuge in the city, away from the racism she faced in the U.S. Her success in France was so great that she later became a French citizen, renouncing her American citizenship.

During World War II, she joined the French Resistance, hiding underground fighters and Jews in the Château des Milandes in the Périgord region, according to the Consulate General of France in Miami

She became a pilot for the French Forces Libres in Morocco and concealed information in her musical scores that she passed on to the Allies. She was awarded the Legion of Honor and the Médaille de la Résistance, upon the Liberation.

Baker died in 1975 at the age of 68. Tuesday’s ceremony celebrating her marks France’s highest honor.

French President Emmanuel Macron made the decision in August to honor the “exceptional figure” who “embodies the French spirit,” making Baker also the first American-born citizen and the first performer to be immortalized into the Pantheon, according to the Associated Press. She will join scientist Marie Curie, philosopher Voltaire, writer Victor Hugo, and other French luminaries.

Based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Meg is head of Digital Editorial Content, bringing 20 years of editorial experience in both digital and print to the Firecrown team. Follow Meg on Twitter @emdash13.

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