In today’s world, you are mostly likely to learn about her ‘near naked’ performances with feathers and bananas before you read about her role as a spy during World War II or a Civil Rights activist. She was an amazing performer, I don’t want to discredit that, but she was more than that as well. As a child, she survived the St. Louis race riots and witnessed the mass exodus of African Americans out of that community. She grew up fast. Utilizing her talent, charm, and beauty, she climbed in popularity. It wasn’t enough for her to sell out a theater; she insisted that her ticket sales be non-segregated. Eventually she would settle in France. She went on to serve the French Resistance as a spy during World War II. Her work was so renowned that France awarded her the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the Rosette of the Resistance. After the war, she began to adopt orphans. She purposely adopted children of all color and ethnicity. In the end, she adopted 12 children and called them the Rainbow Tribe. Critics have a lot to say about this, but I would challenge you to teach this from the historical period she lived in. She was determined to prove to the world that skin color didn’t really make us different and racism was learned, not something we are inherently born with. To this end, she would return to America several times to be part of the Civil Rights Movement. She was such a pivotal part of the movement that the NAACP declared May 20th Josephine Baker Day. Upon her death in France, the French government gave her a 21-gun salute, burying her with full military honors. This post contains affiliate links. You can find my disclosure policy here.
ONLINE RESOURCES & LESSON PLANS:
- Biography has a great (and brief video) along with a short bio of Josephine Baker. It does mention her infamous dance performances, so you will want to preview this resource for age appropriateness for your household.
- For more general information on her work in the Civil Rights Movement, check out Famous African American’s biography post on Josephine Baker and The Official Josephine Baker website.
- In the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs, Justice and Freedom (the one in which MLK gave his famous speech), Josephine Baker was invited to speak. Learn more at Think Progress’s post from 2013.
- This link will take you to a free lesson by Illinois Reads Books to use in conjunction with the book Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (link in the ad above). The book is written for ages 10 to 13 specifically, but I use it for high school ages as well.