Europe

Josephine Baker is first Black woman inducted into France’s Panthéon

PARIS — More than four decades after her death, American-born French singer and dancer Josephine Baker made history on Tuesday as the first Black woman to be inducted into the Parisian Panthéon.

In a symbolism-laden procession, soldiers lifted her cenotaph, draped with the French flag, and carried it along a red carpet to the country’s national mausoleum. The coffin contained soil from St. Louis, where she was born; Paris, which she adopted as her home; and Monaco, where she is buried.

Thibault Camus/AFP/Getty Images

Addressing audiences watching on TV and in person, President Emmanuel Macron honored Baker as a woman who was “devoted to our ideals” and stood out as a “war heroine, fighter, dancer, singer, a Black person defending Black people, but first and foremost a woman defending humans.”

Even though Baker was “born American,” Macron said, at heart there is no one “more French than you.”

Thibault Camus/AFP/Getty Images

Josephine Baker's cenotaph, covered in a French flag, is carried outside the Panthéon in Paris on Nov. 30.

Thomas Coex/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Thomas Coex/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Baker's cenotaph is carried into the Panthéon.

Thomas Coex/Pool/AP

Thomas Coex/Pool/AP

Photographs of Baker are projected on the Panthéon.

Thibault Camus/Pool/Reuters

Thibault Camus/Pool/Reuters

Panthéon burials are reserved for personalities who are seen as national heroes in France. Among the about 80 people who have received the honor are scientist Marie Curie and author and philosopher Voltaire. Baker is only the sixth woman to be commemorated.

“Normally, we induce men into the Panthéon,” said Aurore Pabst, a 20-year-old student, and one of many young women who watched the ceremony in person on Tuesday night. “The atmosphere today was different — there was something extraordinary about it, compared to other Panthéon burials,” she said.

Thibault Camus/Pool/Reuters

People attend the ceremony dedicated to Baker.

Julien De Rosa/AFP/Getty Images

Julien De Rosa/AFP/Getty Images

Baker's cenotaph is placed in the Panthéon.

Thibault Camus/AP

Thibault Camus/AP

President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a ceremony dedicated to Baker.

Sarah Meyssonnier/AFP/Getty Images

Sarah Meyssonnier/AFP/Getty Images

Baker was born in 1906. Her childhood and youth were marked by experiences of segregation, including the 1917 East St. Louis race riots, in which White attackers killed dozens of their Black neighbors.

Baker began her stage career in her teens, performing in the iconic “Shuffle Along” Broadway musical. But persistent discrimination clouded her early success in the United States. At 19, she decided to move to France.

Sarah Meyssonnier/AFP/Getty Images

In 1920s France, Baker said she felt free and respected like never before. “I had been adopted by Paris, and then by the world,” she later recalled.

Within years, Baker had conquered Europe’s stages. Her performances as a dancer and singer reflected a quest for empowerment, both in France and in the United States, where she refused to perform at segregated venues.

In 1937, three years before the Nazis invaded France, Baker acquired French citizenship. During World War II, she became an unlikely spy for the French, which later earned her several military awards.

Sarah Meyssonnier/AFP/Getty Images

Baker goes on a four-month tour from Paris to Buenos Aires in 1939.

AP

AP

Baker shakes Charlie Chaplin's hand after her performance at the Moulin Rouge in Paris in 1953.

AP

AP

Baker with three of her adopted children in 1957.

This year, a petition calling on Macron to order her induction into the Panthéon gained momentum online, with signatories urging the French government to honor her achievements as a feminist, and as a fighter against racism and for human dignity more generally.

Macron approved the act over the summer. In a statement, the Élysée presidential palace said Baker “is the embodiment of the French spirit.”

But people in France today are divided about what that spirit should look like. Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and her competitor Éric Zemmour, who announced his bid Tuesday, call for a less inclusive France. And even under Macron and his predecessors, the country has remained far from its stated goal of treating its citizens equally, no matter where they or their parents were born.

“She had the same skin color I have,” said Stephanie Akri, a 21-year-old from Côte d’Ivoire who studies in Paris, standing at the Panthéon on Tuesday night.

The commemoration, she said, “strengthens us all, and unites us.”

Baker performs at the Palace of Versailles, outside Paris, in 1973.

AFP/Getty Images

AFP/Getty Images

More from the Post

Josephine Baker becomes the first Black woman inducted into France’s Panthéon

Opinion | Josephine Baker enters the Panthéon. Don’t let it distract from this larger story.

The latest from The Washington Post

Credits

Photo editing and production by Olivier Laurent