France on Tuesday posthumously honored Josephine Baker, a US-born jazz legend, cabaret dancer, World War II spy, resistance hero and civil rights activist, placing her cenotaph in the Pantheon mausoleum alongside other national heroes and making her the first Black woman to receive the country’s highest distinction.
In a star-studded ceremony befitting the icon in the domed Parisian monument, President Emmanuel Macron hailed her as a “legend” who “chose France” and led many fights with “freedom, lightness, gaiety."
“She enters here with all those who, like her, have seen in France a land to live in, a place where one would stop dreaming of oneself elsewhere, a promise of emancipation,” he said in a tribute to Baker. Ten of her 12 adopted children were present for the ceremony.
Unlike other luminaries whose mortal remains are buried in the tombs in the Pantheon, Baker’s cenotaph contains earth from four places that were “dear to her” -- her birthplace in Saint Louis, Missouri; Paris, where she found fame through her cabaret performances; Milandes in the Dordogne region of France where she owned a castle and raised her family; and Monaco, where she died in 1975. Her body will remain buried in Monaco.
The ceremony was marked by a procession of her cenotaph carried by female members of France's Air Force, black and white footage of her live shows, and videos of her songs and speeches. The road to the Pantheon was lined with the red carpet and hundreds gathered to witness the event.
Baker lived an extraordinary life. She left the US for France in 1925 to escape racial discrimination. In Paris, she wowed audiences with her performances filled with sensuality and goofiness. During World War II, she enrolled herself in the resistance fight and used her charming personality to work for France’s counter-intelligence services against the Nazis. She was decorated with the country’s highest honors, the Legion of Honor, Croix de Guerre and resistance medal.
After the war, Baker continued to fight against racism and campaigned for the civil rights movement in the US.