Iconic performer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker made history on Tuesday (Nov. 30) as the first Black woman to enter France’s coveted Panthéon. She is also the sixth woman to be prestigiously honored.
French President Emmanuel Macron led the ceremony and considered the late pioneer a “war hero, fighter, dancer, singer” that “firstly [defended] humans. American and French.” Her coffin—which contains “handfuls of earth from four places she lived”—was carried into a tomb in a symbolic laying to rest. At the request of her family, Baker’s body will remain in Monaco.
Deadline reports that interment in the Panthéon’s crypt requires a parliamentary act and the designation of a national hero.
Despite being born in Missouri in 1906, Baker set her personal roots in France at 19. In her adopted home country, she grew in popularity being one of Europe’s highest-paid entertainers. Baker was one of the most celebrated performers to headline the revues of the Folies Bergères in Paris. She sang professionally for the first time in 1930 and later landed film roles as a singer in Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam.
As a French Resistance agent during World War II, she refused to perform for segregated audiences. In 1963, Baker spoke at the March on Washington and was offered unofficial leadership in the movement in the U.S. by Coretta Scott King in 1968, but declined out of concern for her children. Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1975, and was buried with military honors.
Baker’s personal and professional life remains a top influence among entertainers including Beyoncé and Diana Ross. Lynn Whitfield portrayed Baker in HBO’s 1991 biopic, The Josephine Baker Story. Whitfield went on to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special, becoming the first Black actress to do so. Baker was also portrayed on HBO’s hit series, Lovecraft Country.