Josephine Baker Fled America's Racism To Dance, Sing And Become A Spy
During World War II, the famous dancer known for her incredible beauty served as a French Resistance spy.
March 06, 2018 at 5:15 pm
Prior to being one of America's greatest and enduring iconic figures, Josephine Baker was Freda Josephine McDonald from a low-income Mill Creek Valley neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri. She was born on June 3, 1906, and grew up using her wits and street smarts to navigate the small town because she was hungry often. As a teen, she was homeless and had to dance on the streets to support herself.
Many people are familiar with Baker as a dancer and singer. By the 1920s, she left her small town and went to the Big Apple to show the world her talent. During this time, New York City was the scene for any and all black creatives that wanted to make a name for themselves as the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. She found quick success, with hits like Broadway shows Shuffle Along (1921) and The Chocolate Dandies (1924).
Unfortunately, she still had to buy into racial stereotypes like other performers of the Jazz Age. Baker performed in local clubs usually in blackface. Her adopted mother, Elvira McDonald, was always critical of her career but was even more critical of her blackface performances. Despite being one of the highest paid dancers of the time, Baker grew tired of the racism and segregation she felt in America, according to Biography. She left for France at age 19 to perform in the French show La Revue Nègre on October 2, 1925.
Leaving America was an easy choice because home was not a welcoming place. At age 57, Baker flew in from France and commented on race in America during a 1963 speech at the March on Washington.
" I could go into any restaurant I wanted to, and I could drink water anyplace I wanted to, and I didn’t have to go to a colored toilet either," she told the crowd. "I have to tell you it was nice, and I got used to it, and I liked it, and I wasn’t afraid anymore that someone would shout at me and say, 'Nigger, go to the end of the line.'
"So over there, far away, I was happy, and because I was happy I had some success, and you know that too."
Traveling from France to America was a culture shock for her. She wasn't able to "check into the good hotels because I was colored, or eat in certain restaurants. And then I went to Atlanta, and it was a horror to me."
In the 1920s and 30s, the French people loved everything pertaining to black culture. From black music, black-created dances and black performers were all part of this strange obsession with blackness called negrophilia.
France was no stranger to oppression but to Baker, France was more welcoming than the U.S. She married French industrialist Jean Lion around the same time she went back to America to perform in the Ziegfield Follies in 1936. The unremitting racial hostility she faced when she returned to America would force her to stay in France and eventually become a citizen in 1937.
She was also a passionate volunteer for the French Red Cross during the German occupation of France in 1940, according to Spy Museum.
The new French citizen also began working for the Deuxième Bureau, the French intelligence service, after being recruited by Jacques Abtey. On the verge of WWII, she was charged with missions to gather information from high ranking officials who may have been at her shows.
When Germany invaded Poland, Baker was brought in to find out information about German troops and possible threats in France.
France fell to Germany in June of 1940 creating political devastation throughout the nation. Months after, the German puppet government established in Vichy, France took power. With Germany in her beloved France, Baker rose to the occasion and kept performing and gathering intelligence as a French Resistance spy.
By December 1939, Baker and Abtey had a close working relationship thwarting plots and even donning disguises as they crossed national borders. The duo had to go to Casablanca, Morrocco, to set up a liaison station, where they would relay messages and intelligence between Vichy, France and London.
“When I gazed deep into my own inner self, I realized that I would be incapable of functioning as a real spy,” wrote Baker to Abtey circa 1940. “But intelligence work was different. It seemed the perfect way to fight my war.”
Baker would pass along information from the receptions at the Japanese and Italian embassies, her own parties, and other events around Paris as part of the job.
“Sometimes,” Abtey recalled saying circa 1940s, “she would write along her arms, and in the palm of her hand, the things she heard. I told her this was dangerous, but she laughed. ‘Oh, nobody would think I’m a spy.’”
From the book "Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa in World War II" by Meredith Hindley, Baker freely traveled across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe performing, then going to parties and chatting up unsuspecting Axis diplomats.
She would smuggle messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music and in her underwear. She even captured and smuggled photos of secret German military installations. From Lisbon, Madrid, to Seville and back to Casablanca, she worked as a woman of mystery.
For these efforts, at the war’s end, Baker was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Resistance, two of France’s highest military honors in 1945.