Forty-six years after her death, Josephine Baker is once again making headlines as a trailblazing force, as she will soon become the first Black woman to be interred in Paris’ famous Panthéon monument.
Securing a burial site in the Panthéon is a tremendously rare honor, reserved for a select group of French citizens who had an extraordinary impact on the country’s history and culture. To date, fewer than 80 esteemed figures have been deemed worthy of graves and inscriptions at the Panthéon. The elite list includes well-known names such as Victor Hugo, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
As you might imagine, the vast majority of the French luminaries who have been included at the Panthéon have been white men — historically the people most likely to be acknowledged for their contributions. The transfer of Baker’s remains to the monument signals a shift toward a more inclusive French society.
On Aug. 22, an advisor to French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Baker’s remains would be moved to the Pantheon. The decision came after Macron learned of a Change.org petition led by writer Laurent Kupferman that had gained almost 40,000 signatures.
Baker joins only five other women to have been buried at the Panthéon, all of whom have been white. These honorees include scientist Marie Curie, French Resistance fighter Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, ethnologist Germaine Tillion and feminist Simone Veil. Sophie Berthelot is also buried in the Panthéon, though she was included at the request of her husband, chemist Marcellin Berthelot, who is interred beside her at the Parisian burial site.
Baker was actually born in Missouri in 1906, and she moved to France in 1925, ultimately becoming an official French citizen in 1937. She rose to fame as a music-hall star during the Jazz Age, making a name for herself worldwide for her charismatic singing, dancing and acting talent.
At the time, becoming a global sensation as a Black woman in entertainment was extraordinarily unusual. She’s pictured below with Charlie Chaplin at the Moulin Rouge in 1953.
Most people know Baker as an entertainer, though she held a wide variety of other roles over her lifetime. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre (Medal of the Resistance) and a military rank (lieutenant of the Free French Air Force) for her work as a French spy during World War II, when she would use her sheet music to smuggle messages scrawled in invisible ink.
Baker also adopted 12 orphaned children from around the world, and during her later years, she worked as a civil rights activist, even joining Martin Luther King Jr. as a speaker during the 1963 March on Washington.
Since her death in 1975, Baker’s remains have been in Monaco, but they will be transferred to Paris’ Panthéon on Nov. 30, 2021.
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