When World War II broke out in 1939, Josephine Baker was already an established star in France. After emigrating from the United States to France in the 1920s, Baker had made a name as a comedienne, singer and dancer; by 1927, she was the highest-paid entertainer in Europe. In 1934, she starred in the French film Zou-Zou, making her the first black woman to have a leading role in a film.
At the start of the war, she was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau, the intelligence branch of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces. As an entertainer, Baker was able to attract less notice as she traveled throughout Europe and North Africa, gathering information for the French Resistance and passing information from France to contacts in other countries. Information and messages were written in invisible ink in the margins of the sheet music she traveled with.
While in North Africa, Baker performed for US troops stationed there, often ordering the desegregation of her audiences before her performance could begin. As a member of the Resistance, Baker was aware of troop movements, more so than the men for whom she performed. She later said, “Often I knew the men would be sent into battle before they knew. To see them in front of me so full of life and enthusiasm, and knowing that many of them wouldn’t come back alive, was the hardest part of the tour.”
Baker was the first American-born woman to receive the Croix de Geurre, and also received the Légion d’honneur and the Rosette of the Resistance. She was made a member of the Forces Français Libres. Baker, a lifelong activist, wore her FFL uniform when she spoke at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington.
Learn more about Josephine Baker at the National Women’s History Museum and at the Official Site of Josephine Baker. Watch Baker perform in Zou-Zou here.
The moral I’m getting out of this blog so far (or at least one of many), is: it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do for a living, ANYONE can be a spy and a resistance fighter.