France to re-bury U.S.-born Josephine Baker alongside other French luminaries in Pantheon

Josephine Baker
(Image credit: AFP via Getty Images)

France's presidential palace confirmed Sunday that Josephine Baker, a U.S.-born dancer and civil rights activist who became a French citizen in 1937, will be laid to rest in the Pantheon alongside other French heroes like Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Marie Curie. Baker, who died in Paris in 1975 and is currently buried in Monaco, will be the first Black woman and first entertainer buried in the Pantheon, and only the fifth woman given that honor, alongside 72 men. The funeral, first reported by France's Le Parisien newspaper, will take place Nov. 30.

Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, and she moved to Paris in 1925, largely to escape racial discrimination in the U.S. She became one of France's biggest cabaret stars, earning huge fame at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees then Les Follies Bergères for her songs and dance routines, notably her "banana skirt" dances.

Baker joined the French Resistance during World War II, earning medals of honor for her work as an ambulence driver and intelligence agent. "Amid other missions, she collected information from German officials she met at parties and carried messages hidden in her underwear to England and other countries, using her star status to justify her travels," The Associated Press reports. Her civil rights advocacy included joining Martin Luther King Jr. on stage in 1963 during the March on Washington.

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Only France's president can decide to inter someone in the Pantheon, and French President Emmanuel Macron chose Baker after writer Laurent Kupferman started a petition that earned nearly 40,000 signatures over the past two years, The New York Times reports. Macron's interest was piqued "because, probably, Josephine Baker embodies the Republic of possibilities," Kupferman told the Times. A woman "from a discriminated and very poor background" achieving "her destiny" as "a world star" is something "that was possible in France at a time when it was not in the United States."

French authorities have also faced "growing calls to inter more women in the Pantheon," the Times adds, and three of the four women currently buried there — French Resistance fighters Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and former health minister and Holocaust survivor Simone Veil — were added to the Pantheon in 2014 and 2018.

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