Josephine Baker is a Missouri native-exotic dancer and activist who was also a member of the French Resistance. She has now become the first African woman to receive a monument in Paris’ Pantheon.

Baker, who was born in 1975 and died on Tuesday, received one of France’s most prestigious honors. Her coffin was taken to the monument along with 80 other well-respected French figures. Only five were women, including Simone Veil, Holocaust survivor, and scientist Marie Curie. 

Baker was honored with an intimate ceremony in Paris, attended by 2,000 people, including nine of her grandchildren. The event featured old recordings of Baker, an orchestra and children’s choir performing one of her most beloved songs.

The decorated coffin of her mother, draped in France’s tricolored flag, filled with soils from France, Monaco, and the United States, was transported to the monument by the French Air Force.

Baker’s remains are buried in Monaco. But the casket is filled with earth from important locations.  

One other military officer carried the medal, along with the Knight of the Legion of Honor and the World War II Resistance award.

Baker’s family requested that her body be buried in Monaco. 

Members of the French Air Force carry a cenotaph containing soils from the US, France, and Monaco where Josephine Baker lived to the Pantheon in Paris

French Air Force members carry cenotaphs containing soils from France, France and Monaco, where Josephine Baker was born to the Pantheon at Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the ceremony to honor Baker

At the ceremony, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech to honour Baker

US-born Josephine Baker was highly regarded in France and was remembered as an exotic dancer, civil rights activist, and a French Resistance member during World War II

Josephine Baker, a French-born American, was well-respected in France. She was known as an exotic dancer and civil rights activist.

French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the French woman who defended humankind first and foremost as a war hero. French and American. Josephine Baker won so many wars for freedom, lightness and joy. 

Macron stated, “Josephine Baker! You are entering the Pantheon even though you were born in America, because there is no better French woman than you,” 

Baker received praise not only for her internationally acclaimed artistic career, but also her role as an activist for civil rights, and for the humanist values she demonstrated through her adoption of 12 children from around the globe. Nine of them attended Tuesday’s ceremony among the 2,000 guests.   

‘Mum would have been very happy,’ Akio Bouillon, Baker’s son, said after the ceremony. 

“Mum wouldn’t have agreed to be admitted into the Pantheon as a symbol for all the forgotten persons of history, minorities.”

Baker's coffin was carried through the Paris streets as her old recordings played complete with an orchestra and a children's choir singing one of her songs

Baker’s coffin, which was carrying her body through Paris streets, was accompanied by an orchestra and children’s choir who sang one of her song lyrics.

Six carries from the Air Force carry Baker's cenotaph which is decorated with the French tri-color flag

Six Air Force Air Force personnel carry Baker’s cenotaph decorated with the French tricolor flag.

Baker joins 80 other highly regarded French figures, including only five other women, and holds the honor of being the first Black woman to hold a place at the Pantheon

Baker is joined by 80 highly-respected French figures including five women. She holds the distinction of being the first Black woman in the Pantheon.

Bouillon said that the people who came to the Pantheon and watched were what most moved him.

He said, “They were her public. People who loved her.”  

The tribute ceremony started with Baker’s song Me revoilà Paris (Paris, I’m Back). French resistance song was sung by the French army choir, which received strong applause. 

Her signature song J’ai deux amours (Two Loves) was then played by an orchestra accompanying Baker’s voice on the Pantheon plaza.

Baker said, during the light show on the monument: “I think that I am a person adopted by France.” It especially developed my humanist values, and that’s the most important thing in my life.’

The homage included Martin Luther King’s famed ‘I have a dream’ speech. Baker was his only female speaker at the 1963 March of Washington. He made these famous remarks to the audience.  

Baker strikes a pose during her Ziegfeld Follies performance of The Conga at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York in 1936

Baker takes a photo during The Conga’s Ziegfeld Follies performance at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre, New York, in 1936.

Baker is seen after her performance at the Dagmar Teatret (Theatre) in Copenhagen in 1932

After her performance in the Dagmar Theater (Theatre), in Copenhagen, 1932, Baker can be seen.

Baker performs for troops at the British Leave Club at the Hotel Moderne in Paris in May 1940

Baker sings in support of troops in the British Leave Club, Paris Hotel Moderne (May 1940).

Baker had become a megastar in France after fleeing the US due to segregation and racism

After fleeing racism and segregation in the USA, Baker was a star in France.

Baker poses on a tiger rug in 1925 wearing a silk dress and diamond earrings

Baker poses in 1925 on a Tiger Rug wearing a silk and diamond dress. 

Baker performs in her last concert at the Bobino Theater in Paris in 1975

Baker performing in the final performance at Paris’s Bobino Theater on 25th September 1975

Baker, who was born in St. Louis (Missouri), became a star in France in 1930s as she fled racism and segregation in America.

Pap Ndiaye from Black France, an expert in U.S. rights movements for minorities, stated that ‘the simple fact to have a Black women entering the pantheon has been historic.

He said that she had been first shocked by Paris’s lack of racism when she arrived. 

“There was no segregation…no lynching.” There was the option to be served in a cafe by a white waiter. It also gave you the chance to chat with and have (a) romantic relationship with white people.

It does not necessarily mean that there was no racism in France. French racism was often more subtle than American, and not as violent as American forms.

Baker was one of many prominent African Americans who, mainly writers and artists, sought refuge in France following the second World Wars. He also included James Baldwin, a writer and intellectual.

Baker (right) is seen volunteering for the Free French Women's Air Auxiliary in 1940

Baker, right (above) can be seen volunteering in the 1940 Free French Women’s Air Auxiliary 

Baker is seen aboard the French liner Liberte upon her arrival in the New York City harbor in 1950

Baker was seen at the New York City harbour on the French-liner Liberte in 1950.

Baker in her apartment at the Hotel Forresta near Stockholm in 1957 with three of her children Marianne (left), Koffi (center) and Brahim (right)

Baker, her three children Marianne, Koffi and Brahim in 1958 at Hotel Forresta in Stockholm.

Baker is seen receiving the Legions of Honor and the Croix de Guerre in 1961

Baker receives the Legions of Honor, and the Croix de Guerre.

Baker is seen saluting during the 1961 ceremony after receiving the honor

Baker salutes during 1961’s ceremony, after being awarded the honor.

For sure, they were aware of French colonization and its brutalities. Ndiaye also said they enjoyed a much better life than what they left behind in America. 

Baker was quickly a star for her dance moves in banana-skirts that won over audiences at Paris’ theater halls. 

Ndiaye stated that these shows were controversial as many activists believed her to be ‘the propaganda of colonization singing the song the French want her to sing’

Baker understood well the’stigmas that black women have to deal with,’ he explained. “She was also able to distance herself from stereotypes by her facial expressions.

‘But let’s not forget that when she arrived in France she was only 19, she was almost illiterate … She had to build her political and racial consciousness,’ he said.

Baker, who was married to Jean Lion in 1937, became French citizens. The same year, she settled in southwestern France, in the castle of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle.

“Josephine Baker could be called the first black celebrity. She’s like the Rihanna of the 1920s,’ said Rosemary Phillips, a Barbados-born performer and co-owner of Baker’s park in southwestern France.

Phillips said one of the ladies who grew up in the castle and met with Baker said: ‘Can you imagine a black woman in the 1930s in a chauffeur-driven car — a white chauffeur — who turns up and says, ‘I’d like to buy the 1,000 acres here?’

A crowd surrounds the coffin of Baker on April 15, 1975 as she carried to her funeral at the La Madeleine church in Paris

Baker is seen surrounded by many people on the day she carried her coffin to Paris’ La Madeleine church for her funeral. 

Prince Albert of Monaco and one of Baker's sons Jeannot Bouillon-Baker gather at her grave during a tribute in Monaco on Monday

Prince Albert of Monaco, Jeannot Bouillon Bouillon-Baker and one of Baker’s sons gathered at Baker’s grave on Monday during a Monaco tribute

Baker joined LICRA (a leading antiracist organization) in 1938. 

The next year, she started to work for France’s counter-intelligence services against Nazis, notably collecting information from German officials who she met at parties.

The French Resistance recruited her, and used her performance as cover to spy on the Allies during World War II.

Baker, in 1944, was made second-lieutenant of a group of women in the Air Force of French Liberation Army of Charles De Gaulle.

Following the war she became active in anti-racist politics, as well as the civil rights fight in France and America.

She was in financial difficulty towards the end and had to be evicted. 

Her support came from Princess Grace, the Prince of Monaco who provided Baker with a home for herself and her family. Baker was 68 when she died from a brain hemorhage in Paris.