Josephine Baker To Become First Black Woman Interred in France’s Panthéon
Legendary singer and dancer Josephine Baker is making history nearly 50 years after her death by being reinterred at the Panthéon monument in Paris. This makes her the first Black woman to get the country's prestigious honor.
On Sunday, the French newspaper Le Parisien reported that French President Emmanuel Macron would be holding a ceremony on Nov. 30 on behalf of Baker in France’s storied tomb of heroes. The Panthéon is currently the tomb to greats such as scientist Marie Curie, French philosopher Voltaire, writer Victor Hugo, and many more.
American-born Baker, Freda Josephine McDonald, made a name for herself as a renowned dancer, French Resistance agent, and civil rights activist. She arrived in Paris in her late teens after growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, fleeing the segregation and racism that permeated the United States. She went on to become one of the most celebrated performers to headline the Paris revues of the Folies Bergère. Her performances in the twenties became iconic of the Jazz Age, and she was well-known for wearing a skirt of artificial bananas.
She was also the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture, appearing in the 1927 silent film Siren of the Tropics. As part of the French Resistance during World War II, she collected information from German officials surreptitiously at parties and reportedly "carried messages hidden in her underwear to England and other countries, using her star status to justify her travels."
Back in the States, Baker took part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. She continued performing up until she died in 1975 and was buried in Monaco, donning the French military uniform adorned with the medals she received for her role as part of the French Resistance during World War II.
Baker is only the fifth woman to receive the posthumous honor of being buried at the Panthéon and is the first entertainer.
The decision to move Baker's remains and rebury her comes on the heels of a petition by writer Laurent Kupferman, which called for Baker to be put in the Panthéon for her contributions to France both culturally and in war. In a translation of the petition by the New York Times, Kupferman implored President Macron to approve the reinterment “because, probably, Josephine Baker embodies the Republic of possibilities.”
“How could a woman who came from a discriminated and very poor background achieve her destiny and become a world star?” reads the petition. “That was possible in France at a time when it was not in the United States.”