Josephine Baker Will Be the First Black Woman Buried in Paris’s Panthéon

Josephine Baker in Hamburg in 1925.
Josephine Baker in Hamburg in 1925. / Estate of Emil Bieber/Klaus Niermann/Getty Images

Interment in Paris’s Panthéon is one of the greatest posthumous honors a French citizen could hope to achieve, as it's reserved for the country’s most celebrated luminaries. But to say that the burial list has a race and gender imbalance is a bit of an understatement. The overwhelming majority of the Panthéon’s 70-odd graves and inscriptions are for white men, from Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Victor Hugo and Émile Zola.

In fact, only five women have been buried there: Marie Curie; French Resistance fighter Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz; ethnologist Germaine Tillion (who also helped the French Resistance); feminist Simone Veil; and Sophie Berthelot, who technically got her spot because her husband, chemist Marcellin Berthelot, requested she be interred beside him. Now, as Smithsonian reports, Josephine Baker will become the sixth woman and the first Black woman to be buried in the Panthéon.

Born in Missouri in 1906, the Jazz Age performer immigrated to France in 1925 and quickly became an international sensation. Her trailblazing career as a Black woman in entertainment could alone have earned her a Panthéon plot, but Baker didn’t stop at singing, dancing, and acting. She leveraged her celebrity to become one of France’s most intrepid spies during World War II, smuggling messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music and concealing other intel in her luggage or even pinned to her undergarments. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Medal of the Resistance, and a military rank: lieutenant of the Free French Air Force.

Baker, an official French citizen since 1937, was also a lifelong civil rights activist and a champion of underprivileged children. During the 1950s, she adopted 12 orphans from all over the world; and in 1963, she spoke alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington.

Baker’s remains have been entombed in Monaco since her death in 1975, but a recent petition launched by writer Laurent Kupferman called for her reinterment in the Panthéon. According to The New York Times, French president Emmanuel Macron took notice once the petition had amassed almost 40,000 signatures, and a representative confirmed last weekend that Baker would indeed be transferred to Paris’s most illustrious burial site on November 30, 2021.

[h/t Smithsonian]