There is a new Broadway musical currently in previews called “Shuffle Along on Broadway”. It tells the story of one of the first all-black Broadway shows, premiering in 1921. Although she did not star in the show on Broadway, it was this very show that gave dancer Josephine Baker her start.
Josephine Baker was the first of four children born to a black laundress in St. Louis. At the time of her birth, in 1906, St. Louis was one of the most racially mixed cities in the nation, but still educational and job opportunities were severely limited for black citizens. By the time she was 9 years old, Josephine had a full-time job as a maid for a wealthy, but sadistic, St. Louis woman; she ran away from that job, but her family was unable to feed or house her So, when she was only 13, Baker was forced into marriage to a much older man who could support her. But Josephine wanted more; she loved vaudeville and motion pictures, and was eager to get on stage herself. When she was 15, she left her first husband to find a job in a show in Philadelphia, where she married again (apparently ignoring the fact she already had a husband). On a trip to NYC, she saw “Shuffle Along” and applied for a job with the show. When the producer wouldn’t hire her because she was too young to work in NYC shows, Josephine applied for the touring company – and became a huge hit for her comedic talents as well as her uninhibited style of dancing.
Travelling as a black entertainer in 1920s America, though, was far from glamorous. Most hotels and restaurants in large cities refused to rent rooms to African-Americans, and the performers sometimes had to sleep on the tour bus or sitting up in trains. Their pay was barely enough to cover meals and other travelling expenses.
In 1925, a promoter offered Baker a job in a French “revue” in Paris. Parisians were fascinated by black performers, and, in turn, African-Americans loved the French for their racial tolerance and love of music and the arts. American jazz artists had been embraced by the French during the Great War, and many African-American soldiers chose to remain in France after the end of the war rather than return home to a segregated, intolerant America.
For Josephine Baker, who had little education and no knowledge of French, the first few weeks in France were painful. However, she did adapt, and came to love her audiences as well as the freedom she had in Paris. In Paris, she didn’t have to worry that she would be denied a table in a nice restaurant or barred from shopping in a trendy boutique because of her race. French fashion designers were eager to put their clothes on this beautiful, charismatic black woman. American writers and musicians arranged to meet Baker, and she became friendly with European artists as well.
Although Josephine Baker returned to the U.S. in 1936, intent on pursuing her career on the American stage, she was appalled by the racism she encountered, and returned to France. There, she married for the third time, and began to adopt children of various races – eventually taking in a dozen, many of them orphaned by World War II.
During World War II, Baker continued to work as an entertainer, but also helped in the French Resistance. Later, her work with the French Underground was recognized by the French government.
Baker returned to the U.S. periodically after the war, where she was active in the Civil Rights movement. She died in 1975. There has never been anyone like Baker since.