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Josephine Baker: Performer, Activist, Icon

Josephine Baker: Performer, Activist, Icon

Josephine Baker was born on June 3rd, 1906. Her mother was the adopted daughter of two formerly enslaved people. She grew up poor in the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood in St Louis, Missouri. At 8 years old, Josephine went to work as a live-in domestic worker. At age 11, she witnessed the horror of the East St Louis Race Riots, a series of violent incidents by white Americans in which as many as 150 people of color were killed, and 6,000 left homeless as the rioters burned buildings. It is still one of the worst episodes of racial violence in US history. Josephine recounted the experience in a speech years later, saying:

“I can still see myself standing on the west bank of the Mississippi looking over into East St. Louis and watching the glow of the burning of Negro homes lighting the sky. We children stood huddled together in bewilderment ... frightened to death with the screams of the Negro families running across this bridge with nothing but what they had on their backs as their worldly belongings... So with this vision I ran and ran and ran…”

At age 12, Baker dropped out of school, and at age 13, she began her entertainment career. She initially was a dancer in a chorus line, but would find fame years later performing in France. She danced on stage in a costume that consisted of a skirt of artificial bananas and a beaded necklace. 

She became the most successful American entertainer working in France at the time. Author and contemporary Ernest Hemmingway described her as "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” Baker was the first Black performer to visit Yugoslavia, and the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture.

When World War II broke out, Baker was living in France. She was recruited by French Counterintelligence, and used her fame to socialize with German, Japanese, and Italian officials and diplomats, charming them and gathering information without raising suspicion.

For her war efforts, Baker would be given the Resistance Medal by the French Committee of National Liberation.

After the war, Josephine Baker began her work in the Civil Rights Movement.

When Baker traveled to New York with her husband in the 1950s, they were turned away from no less than 36 hotels due to racial discrimination. Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences, and successfully changed these policies at several venues as a result. Because of this, she started receiving threatening phone calls from members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The following quote from Josephine Baker illustrates her response and her courage:

“I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, 'cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world…”

In her formal activism, Josephine Baker worked with the NAACP. Though most well known as a dancer, she wrote articles about the wrongs of segregation and gave talks and lectures. The NAACP would declare May 20th as Josephine Baker Day in honor of her work in the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1963, at the March on Washington, Baker gave a speech about her experiences as a Black woman and a performer. She was the only woman to be an official speaker at this event, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. During her speech, she said:

“I am not a young woman now, friends. My life is behind me. There is not too much fire burning inside me. And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light that fire in you. So that you can carry on, and so that you can do those things that I have done. Then, when my fires have burned out, and I go where we all go someday, I can be happy.”

In this quote, Baker invites future activists to take on her passion and courage and continue her work to advance Civil Rights in the United States.

After the assassination of Dr. King, Coretta Scott King approached Baker and asked her to take over leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. She declined.

Josephine Baker continued to work in Civil Rights activism until her death in 1975.

Josephine Baker was far more than just a dancer and performer, and it’s important that we recognize her legacy of activism as well. 

One of the many quotes that Josephine Baker left to us is this:

“To realize our dreams, we must decide to wake up.”

This quote is immortalized on our beautiful Josephine Baker quote necklace. It’s a reminder not just that we must see the world around us for what it really is, but that doing so is a deliberate choice, not happenstance. 

These powerful words are hand stamped onto three simple yet elegant bars, available in sterling silver or 14 karat gold vermeil. Each necklace also comes with a choice of chain length to help ensure that this piece of jewelry is perfect for its wearer, whether its for you or for a friend or loved one.

Wear this reminder close to your heart and honor the legacy of Josephine Baker; performer, spy, and activist.

Josephine Baker Quote | Quote Necklace | Quote Jewelry

“To realize our dreams, we must decide to wake up.” This quote from performer, spy, and activist Josephine Baker is hand-stamped on our beautiful quote necklace.

“To realize our dreams, we must decide to wake up.” This quote from performer, spy, and activist Josephine Baker is hand-stamped on our beautiful quote necklace.