Josephine Baker (born Freda Josephine McDonald) was an American-born French entertainer, Civil Rights activist, and spy for the Allies during WWll. To celebrate Black History month, we’d like to talk a little bit about her amazing life. Although she wasn’t a Girl Scout (in fact, although Girl Scouts has always accepted girls of all races, troops were segregated until the 1950s), Baker was an incredible woman who perfectly exemplified what it means to be a Girl Scout: honest, friendly, helpful, courageous, and being responsible for what one says or does.
A Go-Getter and Innovator
Baker was widely known in the entertainment business as a dancer and actress. In 1926, Baker premiered in the musical performance La Revue Negre in France. This musical production highlighted jazz music and culture. Baker made her grand entrance on stage in a banana skirt that set the tone for becoming one of the world’s first Black superstars of performing arts. Black people around the world were in complete awe to see someone who looked like them make such a global impact. Shortly after her debut, the entire world revolved around wanting to look, dance, and dress like Baker. Her determination to be herself inspired the world.
Risk Taker, Leader
Baker served her adopted country (France) and her home country (America). Baker faced tremendous racism in America, and was grateful that France had taken her into their country with open arms, allowing her to launch an incredible career. To give back to France, she utilized her fame and public personal as a cover to spy for the Allies during World War II. Baker would intentionally perform at diplomatic parties at the Italian and Japanese embassies to listen to any information that would pertain to new Axis powers collaborating about joining in the war. She was able to collect vital information through conversations she overheard and would write down information in invisible ink under her garments to assist France. Baker went above and beyond, even hiding war refugees in her own home. This took tremendous courage, and saved lives both in the US and abroad.
Courageous and Outspoken
Baker’s heart was dedicated to helping others. The racial disparities and the tensions during the Civil Rights movement in the United States motivated Baker to stay in France at her estate and live her life the way she chose to. France treated Baker like a queen—receiving this same treatment in the United States would have been impossible. However, she made a conscious choice to travel back to the US regularly to be a beacon of light for Black people who were experiencing the exact issues she had fled.
With each visit to the United States, Baker used her influence to advocate for the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. In 1963, Baker was the only Black woman who spoke on the same stage as Martin Luther King during the March on Washington, which protested racial discrimination happening in the United States and rallied support for Civil Rights legislation.
A Sister to All
Baker was a true humanitarian who influenced the importance of inclusivity and diversity decades ahead of her time. The “Rainbow Tribe,” as Baker called it, were her twelve children that she had adopted with her French spouse from around the world, including Japan, France, Venezuela, and Belgium. The Rainbow Tribe exemplified that it was possible for people from different backgrounds and races to coexist and promoted the message that equality was possible.
Diversity, inclusion, and inclusivity were nothing new to Josephine Baker. American History is Black History, and we have a lot to learn from women like Baker. Her contributions and efforts left their mark on our country and the world. Looking at her legacy, it’s clear that this amazing black woman artist, activist, and patriot is a perfect Girl Scout role model. We strive to innovate and be ourselves, take risks and step up as a leader in our communities, and speak out against all forms of injustice. While the world has made amazing progress since Baker’s time, there is much more work to be done.
We hope that by learning a little more about Josephine Baker, you and your troop will feel inspired to pursue your passions, speak out on the issues that matter most to you, and live by the Girl Scout Law.
- Explore Black History in your neighborhood or around Northern California! The African American Museum and Library, Museum of the African Diaspora, The African American Art and Culture Complex, and the Oakland Museum of California are all great places to start.
- Black History month may be in February, but the 1619 Project and the National Museum of African American History and Culture has resources to learn about Black History and civil rights year-round.
- Diversify your mind by diversifying your media! Learn how to find diverse media for all ages.
- Teach your troop to stand up for what they believe in with these articles on how to speak out for equality.
Shawun Ruth Anderson—Shawun Ruth Anderson was raised by a single working mother and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Ms. Anderson’s personal passion and work has always been in assisting African American youth to realize their dreams and full potential. She is the Chief Officer of Operations for Take Your Sister 2 Lunch, Sisters Incorporated (a nonprofit she founded with her mother), has served has the President of the Board for the Friends of The African American Museum and Library at Oakland, and in 2020 ran for City Council for the City of Patterson. For the past 25 years, Ms. Anderson has worked for the Girl Scouts of Northern California. As the Sr. Community Partners Manager for the East Bay, Ms. Anderson’s position affords her the opportunity to provide programs that encourage self-worth and empower girls in inner-city communities to become leaders and public speakers. As a community activist Ms. Anderson has dedicated her life to teaching youth to believe in themselves and most importantly to research and learn about their history and culture.
Tara Brewster—Tara Brewster is the Marketing and Communications Project Coordinator for Girl Scouts of Northern California. Tara received her MBA in 2019 from California Baptist University. She also received her BA in Political Science from the same university in 2014. During her adolescent years she was also a Girl Scout in the Southern California Region. Tara firsthand understands the dedication that is involved with being a Girl Scout. In her free time, she enjoys spending as much time with her young son, and you can also catch her on your Peloton Leaderboard.