Josephine Baker Is the First Black Woman Honored at the Panthéon in Paris

·3 min read
Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker

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Late entertainer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker has been inducted into the Panthéon in France, making her the first Black woman to receive the nation's honor.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906, Baker is also the first American and sixth woman to be recognized in the mausoleum of France's heroes. So far, only 80 people have been inducted.

French President Emmanuel Macron officiated the ceremony Tuesday, as Baker's family and several public figures, including Prince Albert II of Monaco, were in attendance, NPR reported.

"She broke down barriers," said Macron, per the outlet. "She became part of the hearts and minds of French people ... Josephine Baker, you enter the Pantheon because while you were born American, deep down there was no one more French than you."

Baker's song "J'ai deux amours" — a tune that expresses the sentiment, "I have two loves: My country and Paris" — was heard as a coffin bearing handfuls of dirt from four important locations in her life was brought up the steps, CNN reported.

While she will remain in Monaco, where she was laid to rest after passing in 1975, a plaque on a tombstone will serve as a symbol of the tribute.

According to CNN, six French air and space force officers carried the coffin while an additional Air Force member held the five awards Baker garnered while in France — including the World War II Resistance medal and the Knight of the Legion of Honor, one of the country's highest awards.

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The occasion was made complete with the national anthem, a military orchestra, and a chorus of children singing an original Baker song.

The singer and dancer first moved to New York City when she was a teenager and performed with an all-Black dance company. There, she was discovered by a French talent scout, prompting a move to Paris in 1925 at the age of 19. She quickly embraced the culture and was fluent in French just a few years later.

From starring in La Revue Nègre to becoming a staple at the Folies Bergère music hall and landing a lead role in the 1927 silent film La Sirène des Tropiques — the first time a Black woman starred in a feature film — Baker made her mark as a household name in France.

From France, she backed the U.S. civil rights movement and proudly donned her French Resistance medal during her speech at the March on Washington in 1963.

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"When I was a child and they burned me out of my home, I was frightened and I ran away," she said at the address. "Eventually I ran far away. It was to a place called France. Many of you have been there, and many have not. But I must tell you, ladies and gentlemen, in that country I never feared."

Calling out segregation at the time, Baker said France "was like a fairyland place...," adding, "when I was young in Paris, strange things happened to me... I could go into any restaurant I wanted to, and I could drink water anyplace I wanted to, and I didn't have to go to a colored toilet either, and I have to tell you it was nice, and I got used to it, and I liked it, and I wasn't afraid anymore that someone would shout at me and say, 'N-----, go to the end of the line.' "

In 1975, Baker collapsed following a performance in Paris and died days later at 68.