Josephine Baker becomes first Black woman to enter France’s Panthéon

A coffin that bears handfuls of earth from four places where Josephine Baker lived (but not her remains) before its placement in the Panthéon in Paris on November 30, 2021.
A coffin that bears handfuls of earth from four places where Josephine Baker lived (but not her remains) before its placement in the Panthéon in Paris on November 30, 2021. © Julien De Rosa, AFP

French-American dancer, singer, French Resistance member and rights activist Josephine Baker became the first Black woman to enter France's Panthéon mausoleum of outstanding historical figures on Tuesday, nearly half a century after her death.


Baker is just the sixth woman to be honoured in the secular temple to the “great men” – and, belatedly, great women – of the French Republic, which sits on a hill in Paris’s Left Bank.

She is also the first entertainer to be immortalised alongside writer Victor Hugo, scientist Marie Curie and nearly 80 other figures from the worlds of politics, science and the arts in a solemn ceremony led by President Emmanuel Macron.

Baker, who left the US in 1925 to escape racial segregation and found fame in France, is buried in Monaco.

Josephine Baker enters France's Pantheon - Macron celebrates an 'exceptional figure'

To symbolise her entry to the Panthéon, a coffin containing earth from four places where she lived, including her hometown of St. Louis and Paris, was carried into the building by members of France’s air force, watched by hundreds of dignitaries and onlookers.

As the coffin was borne along a street covered in red carpet to the strains of Baker's hit song "J'ai deux amours" ("I have two loves", which she names as "My country and Paris"), images of her life were projected onto the Panthéon's neo-classical facade.

'No one more French'

Paying tribute to her in a speech Macron said Baker "did not defend one skin colour" but "fought for the liberty of all".

Addressing his remarks to "dear Josephine", he said: "You are entering this Panthéon because although you were born American there is no one more French than you."

The extraordinary life of Josephine Baker
The extraordinary life of Josephine Baker © Creative Department - France Médias Monde

The honour bestowed by Macron on the world's first Black female superstar caps years of campaigning by her family and admirers for her place in French history to be recognised.

Macron's office denied speculation that the gesture was aimed at winning support among minorities in the run-up to next year's presidential election.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald into extreme poverty in Missouri in 1906, Baker left school at 13.

After two failed marriages – she took the name Baker from her second husband – she managed to land herself a place in one of the first all-Black musicals on Broadway in 1921.

Like many Black American artists at the time, she moved to France, which was seen as more tolerant towards minorities.

The woman nicknamed the "Black Venus" took Paris by storm with her exuberant dance performances, which captured the energy of the Jazz Age.

How well known is Josephine Baker in the US?

One of the defining moments of her career came when she danced the Charleston at the Folies Bergère cabaret hall wearing only a string of pearls and a skirt made of rubber bananas, in a sensational send-up of colonial fantasies about Black women.

'France made me'

The performance marked the start of a long love affair between the French and the free-spirited style icon, who took French nationality in 1937.

At the outbreak of World War II, she joined the Resistance against Nazi Germany, becoming a lieutenant in the French air force's female auxiliary corps.

She also became a spy for France's wartime leader-in-exile General Charles de Gaulle, obtaining information on Italian leader Benito Mussolini and sending reports to London hidden in her music sheets in invisible ink.

"France made me who I am," she said later. "Parisians gave me everything ... I am prepared to give them my life."

She also waged a fight against discrimination, adopting 12 children from different ethnic backgrounds to form a "rainbow" family at her chateau in the Dordogne region.

She died on April 12, 1975, aged 68, from a brain haemorrhage, days after a final smash-hit cabaret show in Paris celebrating her half-century on the stage.

She is the second woman Macron has granted entry into the Panthéon, after former minister Simone Veil, who survived the Holocaust to fight for abortion rights and European unity.

In a sign of the universal affection in which Baker is still held in France, there was no public criticism of the decision to honour her, including from far-right commentators that are generally scathing towards anti-racism gestures.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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