Josephine Baker: The “Black Venus” from Boxcar Town

Josephine Baker The Black Venus From Boxcar Town

Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3 ,1906 in St. Louis, MO. Her mother, Carrie McDonald, was a washerwoman descended from Apalachee Indians and black slaves from South Carolina. Eddie Carson, her father, was a drummer who soon left the family. He was called a ‘spinach’ by locals, implying Spanish blood.

As the eldest child, she would work the winters shoveling snow from house to house, and in the summer offer to babysit or scrub floors. Giving some of her earnings back to the family, she would save her nickels to attend shows at the Booker T. Washington Theater, a black vaudeville house at 23rd and Market in St. Louis.

There in the small, dark theater, Black entertainers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith performed regularly. Josephine would lose herself in a world of bright lights, costumes, and music.

The family lived in a one-room shack in Boxcar Town, an area in East St. Louis.

During the nights of July 1 and 2, white mobs would invade the predominately black areas of East St. Louis during the riot of 1917. Many homes were burned and looted. Rioters killed and beat black people indiscriminately,

She would be awakened by her mother, begging her to get dressed. They grabbed what money they had and as they were heading out, “the sky was already red with flames, the night air filled with screams.”

In later years, she would describe this as the worst memory of her childhood.

After the events of 1917, her one ambition was to escape poverty and from St. Louis. At the age of 13, she married Willie Wells in a union that wasn’t to last. She would find a way out with the Jones Family Band, where she learned to play the trombone.

In 1922, she joined the cast of Shuffle Along, which became the first successful African American musical, running for more than 500 performances. At 15-years-old, she was too young but lied, replying that she was 17. She remained with the show as it toured the United States until it closed January 1924.

One evening, she was introduced to Caroline Dudley, who along with partner Andre Daven, were producing a black vaudeville show in Paris and had come to the US in search of dancers. Impressed by Josephine’s talent, they asked her to come with them.

She would sail to Paris on September 15, 1925 aboard the RMS Berengaria to appear in La Revue Negre, one of the 25 dancers and musicians hired. Arriving the morning of September 22, they were told that the show was to open in 10 days.

At 10:30pm on October 2, the show opened to a packed house. The lights dimmed, the curtain rose. La Revue Negre was a success and Josephine Baker had taken Paris by storm.

At a time when many Americans were beginning to feel the hardships of the Great Depression, she was worth more than $1 million dollars.

She posed for Pablo Picasso, who described her as the “Nefertiti of now.”

Albert Einstein came backstage at a show one evening, complimenting her on her performance.

As part of the local community, when she heard that a family could not pay its coal bill, she took care of it. She became involved in the affairs of the local orphanage.

World War II began September 1, 1939 with Germany’s invasion of Poland. She volunteered with the war efforts, joining the Red Cross putting together boxes of food, finding housing for the homeless, ladling out food.

She was approached by the French military police to become a spy and became a member of the French resistance. There, she was trained to handle a pistol and was able to shoot the flame off of a candle 20 yards away, she learned karate, German and Italian.

At the end of her training, she was given a handful of cyanide pills for the event that she found herself in a situation she could not handle.

On August 28, 1963, she took part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with 250,000 other civil rights supporters. At the time it was the largest civil rights gathering in America and where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. The following year, the US Congress would pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Prejudice, she believed, was a result of ignorance and distrust. Real freedom could only come from education; people had to learn about equality before they could practice it.

Throughout her career, she adopted 13 children from various countries, calling them the “rainbow tribe.”

In July 1966, she and her family were invited to spend a month vacation at one of Fidel Castro’s villas. He’d taken an interest in her dream in promoting goodwill and understanding among people of all races.

Josephine Baker died at 5am on April 12, 1975 at the age of 68. The cause of her death was a cerebral hemorrhage.  

In 2001, she was inducted into the French Pantheon—the nation's mausoleum of heroes—becoming the first performing artist, first Black woman and first American to do so.

I had no talent — my body just did what the music told me to do.

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