Josephine Baker – there was more to her than just a banana skirt

Since I’m in holiday mood, a fun subject this week. The first time I saw a photo of Josephine Baker, I was entranced. I loved her hair, her style and her nerve! I defy anyone to watch this footage of her and not smile.

Only recently did I read about her life and realized she’d be a perfect subject for a blog: there was so much more to her than just glamour.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906 to a poor family – her father a walked out on the family soon after she was born – her early years were spent cleaning houses and waitressing. She dropped out of school aged thirteen, lived on the streets and began dancing in vaudeville, eventually making it to Broadway, where she auditioned to be a chorus girl but was rejected for being “too skinny and too dark.”

In 1925, she went to Paris to join the jazz revue La Revue Nègre. Thanks to her comic and dancing skills, Josephine became an instant success and became one of the best-known entertainers in both France and much of Europe. Her daring, exotic act, which involved her wearing nothing but a feather skirt, captivated everyone who saw it. She was admired by many, showered with gifts, including cars and diamonds, and received around 1,500 marriage proposals. In fact she married and divorced four times and adopted twelve children, as well as a plethora of exotic pets including a leopard and a snake. attracted the attention of the director of the Folies Bergère. She starred in a new show, La Folie du Jour, that involved her wearing a skirt made of 16 bananas strung together, reinforced her celebrity status and made her one of the most photographed women in the world. But when she returned to the US in 1936, they rejected her, calling her a Negro wench, and she returned to Europe.

During World War II Josephine Baker worked with the Red Cross, was a correspondent for the French Resistance, including smuggling messages written on music sheets, and performed for troops in Africa and the Middle East. It was at this time that she began adopting children and formed a family she called the ‘rainbow tribe’, with the intention of showing the world that children of different races and cultures could be brothers.

In 1951 in the US, Josephine was refused service at clubs and her hotel reservations were not honoured because she was black. She was so upset by her treatment that she began to campaign for racial equality, refusing to entertain in any club or theatre that was not integrated, and wrote articles for the civil rights movement. In 1963, she spoke in Washington beside Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1975, at the age of 68, she performed a comeback concert at Carnegie Hall and received a standing ovation that reduced her to tears onstage. Soon afterwards, she performed in Paris and received ecstatic reviews. But two days after her last Paris performance, she died of a stroke. More that 20,000 mourners lined the streets of Paris and she was buried with military honours.


Rosa Parks – icon of the civil rights movement

This week’s fascinating female is one that most of you will know about, but Rosa Parks’ story deserves retelling because it’s so inspirational. Born Rosa Louise McCauley in Alabama in 1913, she was brought up on her grandparent’s farm at a time when segregation in the Southern states was the norm. Each day she had to walk to school while white students took the school buses. Her mother and grandparents – both former slaves – encouraged Rosa to become active in the civil rights movement. At the age of nineteen she married a fellow activist of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Raymond Parks, and worked on various campaigns and cases but none gained public support.

On December 1, 1955, after a busy day working as a seamstress, she boarded a Montgomery City bus and sat near the middle, behind the ten seats reserved for whites. When all the seats were filled and a white man boarded the bus, the driver insisted that all four people behind the white section stand up so the man could sit there – this was standard practice. Rosa, however, quietly refused to give up her seat. The action was unplanned – people said afterwards that she was tired, but she said in her autobiography that “the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Interestingly, she’d been thrown off the bus twelve years earlier by the same driver for refusing to pay at the front and then going to the back door to board. Since then, she’d avoided the bus if she saw that he was driving, but that day wasn’t paying attention.

She was arrested for civil disobedience but appealed against her conviction. She wasn’t the first woman to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat – Claudette Colvin had been arrested for the same action – but Claudette was a teenager and became pregnant while unmarried. Respectable Rosa was a more powerful representative of the movement. What followed was a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system – a serious threat to the bus company as 75% of its passengers were black. White backlash against the boycott was brutal – a shotgun was fired through the front door of fellow Montgomery activist Martin Luther King, and churches were bombed, but the protest ultimately succeeded. In December 1956, segregation of buses was made illegal

Although Rosa quickly achieved iconic status, her action brought her hardship. She and her husband lost their job as a result of the publicity and were the victim of so many death threats that they were forced to move to Detroit. Rosa developed stomach ulcers and a heart condition and suffered chronic insomnia. Raymond turned to drink and suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the harassment. Rosa didn’t find full employment until 1965, when she worked for a congressman.

Despite her fame and many public speaking engagements, Rosa lived frugally, donating most of her money to civil rights causes. She co-founded the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation, which awards scholarships to high school seniors, and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which helps young people get involved in their communities. When she died in 2005 at the age of 92 her body was allowed to lie in honour at the US Capitol, the first woman and second African American to be given this honour.