Josephine Baker, the trailblazing American-born entertainer and civil rights activist, is the first Black woman to be laid to rest at France’s Pantheon.
The Parisian monument is dedicated to iconic figures that have left a decisive imprint on French history, including the writers Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola, resistance hero Jean Moulin and politician Simone Weil. Baker is only one of the six women to have received this rare honor, along with Weil, scientist Marie Curie, chemist Marcellin Berthelot and resistance figures Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle-Athonioz. Baker’s remains will stay in Monaco, where she was buried, but her presence at the Pantheon is commemorated with a plaque on a cenotaph.
President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to Baker’s legacy during an official ceremony held at the Pantheon attended by hundreds of people on Tuesday. Macron called Baker “a war hero, fighter, dancer, singer, Black defending Blacks — but beyond that a woman who defended human beings, American and French.” He praised Baker’s lifelong commitment to liberty and justice which embodies the “French spirit.”
Born in Missouri into a poor family, Baker became a global star after moving to Paris at a young age to escape racial segregation. At the time, Paris was viewed as Europe’s capital for the arts and culture. She helped popularize jazz in the country and became a music-hall sensation at the legendary cabaret Les Folies Bergères in the 1930s. During WWII, Baker became a secret agent for the French Resistance, as well as a lieutenant in the French air force’s female auxiliary corps, for which she received a Resistance Medal. In the U.S., she refused to play for segregated audiences and supported Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement. She also adopted 12 children of different racial and religious backgrounds, whom she called the “Rainbow Tribe.” She died at the age of 68 in 1975.
An English-language series about Baker is currently being developed by CPB Films (“Savages”) and Leyland Films (“Murder in Provence”), with Studiocanal handling international sales.