American-born entertainer Josephine Baker will become the first black woman to be inducted into Paris’ Panthéon memorials for icons of France.
Baker, who died in 1975 at 68, was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, but made a name for herself on the stage and screen — while doubling as an agent of the French Resistance during World War II, and later as a civil rights activist in the US.
Baker is also only the sixth woman to be entered into the monument, at the final resting place of some 80 other historical French figures, including the likes of Marie Curie and Victor Hugo.
Baker’s family has led a campaign for her induction into the Panthéon since 2013, gathering some 38,000 signatures in a petition — enough to ensure French President Emmanuel Macron’s approval, first reported in le Parisien on Sunday.
Her body will remain buried in Monaco, grandson Claude Bouillon-Baker told Agence France-Presse, but a plaque to honor her entry into the mausoleum will be added on Nov. 30.
French minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said in a statement on social media that Baker was “a great lady who loved France.”
Baker, born in 1906, rose to notoriety during France’s roaring 1920s and into the ’30s as an erotic dancer, namely her signature Danse Sauvage in which she works a revealing costume strung with beads and painted bananas. In 1927, she became the first black woman — a title she held in several respects — to star in a major film, “Siren of the Tropics” (“La Sirène des tropiques”).
The so-called “Black Venus” and “Creole Goddess” became a French national in 1937 after marrying her third husband of four, French industrialist Jean Lion.
As Baker became embedded in Paris’ elite, she would use her connections to garner intel on German troops — keeping such notes hidden with invisible ink written over her own sheet music.
For her bravery, she was honored with two wartime distinctions for her contributions to French intelligence and made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur, the country’s highest order of merit for both military and civilians, by General Charles de Gaulle.
Baker would support the US’s civil rights movement from afar during the 1950s, despite enjoying many more freedoms as a French ex-pat. While touring the US, she refused to perform in front of segregated audiences and called out the establishments that refused her service, including hotels and clubs. She also became involved with the NAACP and would rally in the South for the rights of black Americans, eventually speaking at the March on Washington alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963.
When Baker died in 1975, she became the first and only American-born woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral.