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African-American women who changed America- Josephine Baker

Updated on February 3, 2017

African American women who changed America


"Freda" Josephine McDonald was born in St. Louis in 1906 in Mud Creek Valley, just west of Union Station in an area demolished when Interstate 40 was built over it.

Josephine Baker's early life is pretty sketchy, mostly because she told so many different stories about it, many of which were fabricated. What is known is that she was born in 1906 to Carrie McDonald. Her father was known as Eddie Carson, but his paternity was always questioned and Carrie took the truth to her grave. Josephine once said her father was Spanish, but, she said so many things about her childhood that were not true, no one knew if this was factual or not.

Josephine grew up in a big family, and was known as "Tumpy", but always felt a loner, and used music as an escape. "Every Sunday, I went to see dances for 15 cents at the Bascher on Washington. A very small theatre with a very small stage. She first sought work as a performer at the Booker T. Washington Theater in her hometown; running errands, dancing in the chorus line and doing physical comedy. She became close to the Jones Family Band, who also performed there, and lived with them for awhile. During her stay with the Jones family, Mrs. Jones taught her to play the trombone, ukulele, and other instruments.

Life changing experience

During this time, in 1917, Josephine witnessed a scene that she would never forget and would shape the rest of her life . That summer in St. Louis, the rumor spread that a white girl had been raped. A white mob bent on revenge descended on the black part of the town and within hours, 50 people lay dead . Through the heavy smoke lying over the city in it's aftermath, a terrified little girl thought that she saw the "white-clothed figure of God" watching over her

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated event . In black communities of any size in America during this time, a terror prevailed, kept alive by the presence of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings and a distrust of local authorities, who did not always protect the blacks, but sometimes changed from police uniforms in the daytime to Ku Klux Klan uniforms at night.

A small black girl from St. Louis to International sensation- This was the racially charged atmosphere in St. Louis at the time and "Tumpy" knew she must escape. A self-described independent thinker from the time she was a child, , at 13 she joined the Dixie Steppers, one of many troupes of black entertainers that traveled across the country. She traveled all over and eventually ended up in the livliest black community of it's day- Harlem.

So this was the backdrop of Josephine Baker, who went on to become a worldwide sensation in Paris, becoming an intregal part of the avante-garde and black expatriate Montmartre. Often referred to as Harlem on the Seine, it was the home of many black musicians, artists, clubs, and places where African American culture was packaged and sold to the Parisian community. She was involved and interconnected with artists such as Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Louis Armstrong, and Alexander Calder, to name a few.

The Devil among us- Josephine Baker in France

Josephine Baker eventually married and became a French citizen, kept a leopard as a pet, which she walked on the streets of Paris, and adopted 12 children from around the world, hoping to be a model for a society that included and accepted every race, color and religion. . While she became known for her use of physical expression in dance, and famous for her unabashed and unapologetic use of nudity in dance, Josephine Baker was an artist who used her body as an instrument to make the world stop and listen.


The world, in the early 1900's, didn't always like what they saw. In Vienna, Catholic priests joined with politicians to ban Baker as an immoral demon and a threat to public morality. As Baker entered the city, church bells warned residents to clear the streets and people crossed themselves to ward off evil spirits. Pamphlets were circulated condemning her and anyone who dare to do the Charleston or play jazz music in public. But not ever shying away from anything, Baker did succeed in opening her show at the Johann Strauss Theater, a small building directly across from the Saint Paul Cathedral, whose clergy had condemned her performance. But what she wanted to say had nothing to do with sex or the Charleston . Baker described the event:

"They were waiting for an appearance of the devil. I entered the stage very simply.There was an instant of great silence and surprise. Then I sang with all my heart, with a fearful and beating heart: Sleep My Poor Little Baby, and old slave song... Excuse me, but it seemed to me that the entire audience melted...When the applause and the cries calmed down, I danced as I've always danced, as I always will dance, without thinking of good or bad, but about my dance."


Josephine was a masterful storyteller from the time she was small. She wrote and collaborated on autobiographies, screenplays, literary pieces and songs. The pieces she wrote were powerfully used in her life both as a guide she modeled after, and justification for the course of action she took as a poor black girl out of St. Louis, at the height of bigotry in America , to a worldwide sensation, celebrity and powerful proponent of black rights.

The long road home- Josephine Baker left St. Louis in 1919 and didn't return until 1952. She was asked many times to perform in her hometown, but turned them all down because she refused to perform in front of racially segregated audiences. One time she turned down $12,000 to do a performance at the Chase Plaza because blacks were not allowed.

On the night of February 3rd, 1952, however, she finally came back to where it all started. She performed at the Kiel Auditorium for an integrated audience of 8,000 people. She sang and danced and delighted the audience for two and a half hours. Then she spoke to St Louis, saying finally to hometown what she had been saying with her art for the past 30 years on the international stage:


I ran away from St. Louis, and then I ran away from the United States, because of that terror of discrimination," Baker said, reading from her script. "The hate directed against the colored people here in St. Louis has always given me a sad feeling. ... How can you expect the world to believe in you and respect your preaching of democracy when you yourself treat your colored brothers as you do?"

Art imitates life - Josephine Baker's name is inlaid on the sidewalk in University City in St. Louis where she was born and so little was expected of her life. She rose to become an international superstar taking on the world. She is buried in Monaco and was a French citizen. This extraordinary woman was a product of a time and place where racial hatred fueled art and reinvented America's music and culture. She took the hatred and the art and she put them on for the world to see. She became her experience and allowed the world to see. Taking both the good and the bad and integrating it into a unique and courageous life where art became the person and the person became the art.

Not bad, Josephine, not bad at all.


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    • grinnin1 profile image

      grinnin1 5 years ago from st louis,mo

      That's really true- and I don't know how we manage to make history so boring for kids in school(maybe it's changed, it's been awhile)Your comments are always great, logic, commonsense- thanks for stopping by.

    • profile image

      logic,commonsense 5 years ago

      I love the history and all the little nuggets we run across. Too many times we look at the 'big' picture and forget about all the ingredients it takes to make the 'big' picture! Thanks for sharing this nugget!