A Look Back • Josephine Baker returns, rips St. Louis' racial discrimination
A look back

A Look Back • Josephine Baker returns, rips St. Louis' racial discrimination

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ST. LOUIS • Josephine Baker crooned love songs in French. In a full and elaborate gown, she strutted a hint of the steps from her frenetic, less-clad days in Paris.

Baker's show on Feb. 3, 1952, in Kiel Auditorium was noteworthy mainly for having taken place at all. She hadn't performed in her native city since achieving worldwide fame in Paris in 1925. She had plenty of opportunities to play here, but refused to appear before racially segregated audiences.

Baker was a teenager when she left St. Louis about 1919 with a vaudeville troupe. She performed in New York before heading for Paris with Le Revue Negre, a black dance company, and became a sensation for sultry dances wearing only a few feathers or a skirt of bananas. Flamboyant on stage and in life, she walked a pet leopard in Paris and became a French citizen in 1937.

Baker returned home a few times, but only to visit her mother. In 1951, she refused $12,000 to perform at the Chase Hotel because blacks couldn't have attended.

She appeared at Kiel in 1952 on behalf of the Citizens Protest Committee on Overcrowding in the Negro Public Schools, a local group raising money to fight segregation. Baker entertained an integrated audience of about 8,000 people for two hours, then let her hometown have it.

"I ran away from St. Louis, and then I ran away from the United States, because of that terror of discrimination," Baker said, reading from her script. "The hate directed against the colored people here in St. Louis has always given me a sad feeling. ... How can you expect the world to believe in you and respect your preaching of democracy when you yourself treat your colored brothers as you do?"

The Post-Dispatch and Globe-Democrat, St. Louis' two daily newspapers, ran short stories on inside pages about the performance without describing audience reaction.

Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906 in the Mill Creek valley, west of Union Station. Her mother was a laundress, her father a department-store porter and musician. Her nickname was Tumpy. Details of her early life are fuzzy, mainly because of Baker's fondness for telling stories differently each time.

She told the Post-Dispatch in 1950 that she began dancing for friends in her home at 2632 Bernard Street, in an area obliterated for Highway 40. "A safety pin bought a box seat (to my show) and when momma came home from work I got a spanking. Oh, I was a bad girl," she said.

During World War II, she entertained Allied troops. She was married at least three times, adopted a dozen children and lived in a castle in southern France. She was to perform again in St. Louis in 1973, but canceled. She died in Paris in 1975 at age 68 and is buried in Monaco.

Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.

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