Story at a glance
- The American-born performer Josephine Baker will become the first Black woman to be “Pantheonized.” She’ll join four other women in the final resting place of some of France’s most celebrated icons.
- Baker’s induction was approved by French President Emanuel Macron in August after a petition was signed by roughly 38,000 people.
- Baker played a critical role in the French Resistance following Nazi Germany’s invasion during World War II.
The dancer, activist and World War II operative Josephine Baker will be inducted into France’s Pantheon this week, becoming the first Black woman to be honored in the final resting place of some of France’s most revered figures.
Soil from the U.S., where Baker was born, and Monaco will be carried inside the domed monument commissioned by King Louis XV Tuesday in an otherwise empty coffin. Baker’s actual body will remain in Monaco, at the request of her family.
French President Emanuel Macron approved Baker’s induction in August after a petition circulated by her family garnered roughly 38,000 signatures. They had been campaigning for her induction since 2013, but one’s “pantheonization” can only be approved by the president.
“When the president said yes, [it was a] great joy,” one of the campaigners, Jennifer Guesdon, told The Guardian at the time.
Born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906 in St. Louis, Mo., Baker rose to stardom in the 1930s after moving to France to pursue a career in show business and escape racial discrimination in the U.S. She eventually renounced her U.S. citizenship.
Following Nazi Germany’s invasion of France during the second World War, Baker joined the French Resistance, relaying intelligence to the Allies while performing for Axis troops in enemy territory. Baker was buried in her French military uniform after her death in 1975.
An advocate for social change, Baker returned to the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s to protest for racial justice, speaking at the March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. Baker was also an openly bisexual woman at a time when same-sex relationships were illegal in many places.
Some in France have criticized the country’s decision to induct an American-born Black figure into the Pantheon as performative, accusing France of again condemning racism abroad while ignoring it at home.
Completed in 1790, the Pantheon, overlooking the Left Bank of Paris, holds some of France’s most important cultural icons, including Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the chemist Marie Curie.
Baker will join Curie and just three other women — fellow Resistance fighters Germaine Tillion and Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz, and Holocaust survivor Simone Veil — to receive the country’s highest honor. The monument houses the remains of 75 men.
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