(PARIS) — The U.S.-born entertainer, anti-Nazi spy and civil rights activist Josephine Baker was inducted into France’s Pantheon on Tuesday, becoming the first Black woman to receive the nation’s highest honor.
Baker’s voice resonated through streets of Paris’ famed Left Bank as recordings from her extraordinary career kicked off an elaborate ceremony at the domed Pantheon monument. Baker was joined by other French luminaries, such as philosopher Voltaire and scientist Marie Curie, who were also honored at this site.
The cenotaph was carried by Air Force military officers along four blocks of red carpeted cobblestone streets that ran from the Pantheon to the Luxembourg Gardens. Baker’s military medals lay atop the cenotaph, which was draped in the French tricolor flag and contained soils from her birthplace in Missouri, from France, and from her final resting place in Monaco. At the request of her relatives, her body was kept in Monaco.
French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to “a war hero, fighter, dancer, singer; a Black woman defending Black people but first of all, a woman defending humankind. French and American. Josephine Baker fought so many battles with lightness, freedom, joy.”
“Josephine Baker, you are entering into the Pantheon because, [despite being]American citizens are more French than French. [woman] than you,” he said.
Baker, an American citizen born in America, was the first to be honored by the Pantheon.
Her world-renowned art career is celebrated, but so are her civil rights activism, active participation in World War II and the humanist values she demonstrated through her adoption of 12 children from around the globe. Nine of them attended Tuesday’s ceremony among the 2,000 guests.
“Mum would have been very happy,” Akio Bouillon, Baker’s son, said after the ceremony. “Mum would not have accepted to enter into the Pantheon if that was not as the symbol of all the forgotten people of history, the minorities.”
Bouillon stated that he was moved most by the number of people who lined the streets in front the Pantheon, to observe.
“They were her public, people who really loved her,” he said.
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The tribute ceremony started with Baker’s song “Me revoilà Paris” (“Paris, I’m Back”). French resistance song was sung by the French army choir, which received strong applause. Her signature song “J’ai deux amours” (“Two Loves”) was then played by an orchestra accompanying Baker’s voice on the Pantheon plaza.
During a light show displayed on the monument, Baker could be heard saying “I think I am a person who has been adopted by France. It especially developed my humanist values, and that’s the most important thing in my life.”
The homage included Martin Luther King’s famed “I have a dream” speech. Baker was Baker’s only female speaker at the 1963 March to Washington.
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Baker was born in St. Louis in Missouri. She became an international star in the 1930s.
“The simple fact to have a Black woman entering the pantheon is historic,” Black French scholar Pap Ndiaye, an expert on U.S. minority rights movements, told The Associated Press.
“When she arrived, she was first surprised like so many African Americans who settled in Paris at the same time … at the absence of institutional racism. There was no segregation … no lynching. [There was]The possibility of sitting at a café and being served by a waiter who is white, as well as the opportunity to speak to other whites. [have a] romance with white people,” Ndiaye said.
“It does not mean that racism did not exist in France. But French racism has often been more subtle, not as brutal as the American forms of racism,” he added.
Baker was one of many prominent Black Americans who, after the second World Wars, sought refuge in France, along with James Baldwin, a writer and intellectual.
They were “aware of the French empire and the brutalities of French colonization, for sure. But they were also having a better life overall than the one they had left behind in the United States,” Ndiaye said.
Baker became well-known for her banana-skirt routines, which were admired by Paris theater audiences. Her shows were controversial, Ndiaye stressed, because many activists believed she was “the propaganda for colonization, singing the song that the French wanted her to sing.”
Baker knew well about “the stereotypes that Black women had to face,” he said. “She also distanced herself from these stereotypes with her facial expressions.”
“But let’s not forget that when she arrived in France she was only 19, she was almost illiterate… She had to build her political and racial consciousness,” he said.
Baker, who was married to Jean Lion in 1937, became French citizens. The same year, she settled in southwestern France, in the castle of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle.
“Josephine Baker can be considered to be the first Black superstar. She’s like the Rihanna of the 1920s,” said Rosemary Phillips, a Barbados-born performer and co-owner of Baker’s park in southwestern France.
Phillips said one of the ladies who grew up in the castle and met with Baker said: “Can you imagine a Black woman in the 1930s in a chauffeur-driven car—a white chauffeur—who turns up and says, ‘I’d like to buy the 1,000 acres here?’”
Baker joined LICRA (a leading antiracist organization) in 1938. The next year, she started to work for France’s counter-intelligence services against Nazis, notably collecting information from German officials who she met at parties. After her appearances, she joined the French Resistance and was used as cover for spying during World War II.
Baker was second lieutenant of a women’s group of fighters in the Air Force of France Liberation Army of General Charles De Gaulle in 1944.
She became involved in both anti-racist politics in France, and civil rights struggles in America after the war.
At the end her life she fell into financial difficulty, lost her property, and was eventually evicted. Her support came from Princess Grace, Monaco who gave Baker a home for herself and her children.
AP journalists Jamey Keaten and Arno Pedram in Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, France, and Bishr Eltouni in Monaco contributed.