In December 1950, Josephine Baker received a telegram from Copa City, a posh nightclub in Miami Beach, inviting her to give a series of concerts.
But with segregation rife in the United States, the Black French singer refused to perform in a venue where African-Americans were not accepted, a decision that became a turning point in her struggle for racial justice.
On November 30, the US-born star, who died in 1975 at age 68, will become the first Black woman to be entombed in the Pantheon in Paris, a mausoleum that houses the remains of the most notable figures of French history.
By the late 1940s, the singer, music hall dancer, and member of the French Resistance, Baker was already a world star who triumphed in the cabarets of Paris, where she had lived since 1925.
But even Baker’s fame did not prevent her from facing discrimination in the country of her birth.
In 1948, many New York hotels refused to host Baker with her white husband, Frenchman Jo Bouillon. A trip she took to the American South that summer, alone and incognito, made her even more resentful.
That’s why Baker did not hesitate to turn down Copa City’s offer and repeat her stance to the manager of the club, Ned Schuyler, who personally travelled to Havana to try to convince her.
Segregationist laws in southern US states prevented African-Americans from accessing beaches, restaurants and other public venues, unless they worked there.
“I cannot work where my people cannot go,” Baker told him, according to an article by Mary Dudziak, a civil rights historian in the United States. “It’s as simple as that.”
Faced with Baker’s resolve, Schuyler signed a document that guaranteed entry to all customers regardless of their skin color.
On the opening night of her concert at Copa City in January 1951, Baker told the audience: “This is really my first appearance in this, my native land in 26 years.”
She added, according to Dudziak: “The other times didn’t count. Now it is different. I am happy to be here and to be performing in this city under these circumstances when my people can be here to see me.”
Baker’s concerts at the Copa City were a success. Praised by the media, she undertook a new tour of the United States in 1951, demanding every time that the host desegregate.
In Los Angeles, Baker had a white man arrested for insulting her and refusing to eat breakfast alongside her. It would still be another 13 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against racial segregation was passed.
Using her voice, her money and her popularity, Baker fought against racial discrimination in the United States.
“Because of her fame and her wealth, she was able to do things at the cutting edge of the civil rights movement that very few other people would have been able to do without danger of physical harm or state repression,” Matthew Guterl, a professor at Brown University, explained in his book “Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe.”
But Baker’s activism also began to make some people uncomfortable.
In October 1951, she complained that the waiters at the prestigious Stork nightclub in New York were ignoring her for being Black.
The ensuing scandal cost Baker some contracts she had signed to perform in clubs in the city. But the Stork Club faced no backlash.
Soon after, Baker was accused of being a Communist, a common complaint used to silence voices critical of the United States during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against people perceived as disloyal.
After those accusations, Baker left the United States and did not return for the next decade.