Freda Josephine McDonald was born on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother, Carrie, was adopted in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1886 by Richard and Elvira McDonald, both of whom were former slaves of African and Native American descent.
Her mother was a washerwoman who had given up her dreams of becoming a music-hall dancer. Her father, Eddie Carson, was a vaudeville drummer. He abandoned Carrie and Josephine shortly after Josephine’s birth. Carrie remarried soon thereafter and would have several more children in the coming years.
To help support her growing family, at age eight Josephine cleaned houses and babysat for wealthy white families, often being poorly treated. She briefly returned to school two years later before running away from home at age 13 and finding work as a waitress at a club. While working there, she married a man named Willie Wells, from whom she divorced only weeks later.
It was also around this time that Josephine first took up dancing, honing her skills both in clubs and in street performances, and by 1919 she was touring the United States with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers performing comedic skits. In 1921, at 15, Josephine married a man named Willie Baker, whose name she would keep for the rest of her life despite their divorce years later. In 1923, Baker landed a role in the musical Shuffle Along as a member of the chorus, and the comic touch that she brought to the part made her popular with audiences. Looking to capitalize on these early successes, Baker moved to New York City and was soon performing in Chocolate Dandies and, along with Ethel Waters, in the floor show of the Plantation Club, where again she quickly became a crowd favorite.
In 1925, at the peak of France’s obsession with American jazz and all things exotic, Baker traveled to Paris to perform in La Revue Nègre, The Negro Review, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.
Unlike the United States, France did not racially segregate public places on a large scale. When Josephine and her castmates boarded a train in France, they were surprised but happy to learn they could sit anywhere they liked.
She made an immediate impression on French audiences when, with dance partner Joe Alex, she performed the Danse Sauvage, or the Wild Dance, where she wore only a feather skirt.
The following year, at the Folies Bergère music hall, one of the most popular of the era, Baker’s career would reach a major turning point. In a performance called La Folie du Jour, Madness of the Day, Baker danced wearing little more than a skirt made of 16 bananas. The show was wildly popular with Parisian audiences and Baker was soon among the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe, having the admiration of cultural figures like Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and E. E. Cummings and earning herself nicknames like “Black Venus” and “Black Pearl.” She also received more than 1,000 marriage proposals.
Taking advantage of this success, Baker sang professionally for the first time in 1930, and several years later landed film roles as a singer in Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam. The money she earned from her performances soon allowed her to purchase an estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac, in the southwest of France. She named the estate Les Milandes and soon paid to move her family there from St. Louis.
Over time, Josephine became the most successful entertainer in France, transforming from an exotic dancer into a film star and opera singer. Throughout these years, it is believed she became the wealthiest black woman alive.
In 1928, Josephine departed for a European tour, with the first stop in Vienna. Josephine had not been aware of the extent of the political unrest building in the region. By that point, Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, had popularized racist ideologies that spread throughout the region. Before Josephine even arrived in Vienna, posters around the city denigrated her performance, calling her a “black devil.” As she rode in a carriage to her hotel, protesters lined the streets. Josephine said the scene reminded her of the race riots that shook her community when she was a child.
The start of World War II put Josephine’s future performances on hold. In 1936, riding the wave of popularity she was enjoying in France, Baker returned to the United States to perform in the Ziegfield Follies, hoping to establish herself as a performer in her home country as well. However, she was met with a generally hostile, racist reaction and quickly returned to France, crestfallen at her mistreatment. Upon her return, Baker married French industrialist Jean Lion and obtained citizenship from the country that had embraced her as one of its own.
The couple later divorced in 1941, but in that time, Josephine came to represent much of what Hitler and the Nazis despised. She was a successful, black woman in an interracial marriage with a Jewish man, who was also openly bisexual and had multiple long-term, semi-public relationships with other women. When the Germans began to advance on Paris in 1940, Josephine, like millions of other Parisians, fled the city.
Josephine moved to a chateau she rented in the south of France, where she took in other refugees fleeing the Nazis. After the fall of Paris, Josephine came into contact with Jacques Abtey, the head of French counter-military intelligence. Abtey sought to recruit people who could engage in espionage to help resistance efforts against the Nazi occupation. Josephine was an ideal candidate for this work, as her celebrity allowed her to move easily between countries and offered her enhanced protection. When Abtey approached Josephine to see if she would take the risk and join the resistance, she said, “France made me what I am. I will be grateful forever. The people of Paris have given me everything… I am ready, captain, to give them my life. You can use me as you wish.”
Josephine housed resistance fighters at her chateau and supplied them with visas. She attended parties and diplomatic functions, including parties at the Italian embassy that brought her in the orbit of high-ranking Axis bureaucrats. She collected information on German troop movements, and what harbors or airfields were in action. Josephine was confident that her celebrity and connections would protect her, and that no one would suspect her of espionage. She wrote down intelligence on her hands and arms, pinning notes inside her underwear. She did so knowing she would never face a strip-search—and she was right.
The Nazis had gotten wind of the resistance activity happening at Josephine’s chateau, and visited the estate. Josephine had been hiding several resistance fighters at the time of the visit. She successfully charmed the Nazis when they questioned her, but she took the close encounter as a sign that it was time to leave France. Abtey contacted General Charles de Gaulle, who instructed both Abtey and Baker to travel to London via Lisbon (which was neutral.) Between them, the pair carried over 50 classified documents and secret intelligence. Josephine carried hers by writing the information down in invisible ink on her sheet music. Josephine would continue her spy work throughout the rest of World War 2.
Following D-Day and the liberation of Paris, Josephine returned to her adopted city wearing a military uniform. She quickly took note of the terrible conditions many French people endured after the Nazi occupation. She sold pieces of jewelry and other valuables to raise money to buy food and coal for the poor citizens of Paris. Following Germany’s surrender in 1945, General de Gaulle awarded Josephine the Croix de Guerre, or the French Military Cross, and the Rosette de la Résistance. He also named her a Chevalier de Légion d’honneur, Knight of the Legion of Honor, the highest order of merit for military and civil action.
After WW2 Josephine returned to St. Louis and was forced to confront segregation and discrimination that she had not experienced since she was a child in St. Louis. She often refused to perform to segregated audiences and had a non-segregation clause in her performance contracts, which forced club owners to integrate for her shows. Her opposition against segregation and discrimination was recognized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1963, she was one of the few women allowed to speak at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Her speech detailed her life as a black woman in the United States and abroad:
“You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”
Baker continued to fight racial injustices into the 1970s. Her personal life was a testament to her political agenda. Throughout her career, she adopted 13 children from various countries. She called her family “the rainbow tribe” and took her children on the road in an effort to show that racial and cultural harmony could exist. Baker remained on stage late into her life and in 1975 she performed for the last time. The show was sold out and she received a standing ovation. Baker passed away on April 12, 1975 in France. She is buried in the Monaco cemetery with her fourth husband, composer Jo Bouillon
When she died, she was the first American-born woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral.
Milunka was born in Serbia in either 1889 or 1890. She was from the small village of Koprivnica, Serbia and not much is known about her childhood or early life. When she was 24 her brother was drafted to serve in the Army.
Most sources state that she took her brother’s place because he was ill or sickly. Maybe he could not fight well, and she could so she took his place. But I will tell you that there were boys as young as 12 in the Serbian Army. So I think its a very real possibility that her brother was a baby, and she went to prevent him from having to go. Some accounts stated she joined with him. Either way she cut her hair, disguised herself as her brother and went to war.
Serbia was fighting the Bulgarians in the Balkan Wars at this time.
Milunka found herself successfully enlisted in the Serbian Army in 1913. She fought in the Second Balkan War where she received her first medal in the Battle of Bregalnica. She was also promoted to Corporal and was able to keep her gender hidden until one of the nine wounds she received under up being in her chest. Once the Doctor discovered the truth he reported her to the commander.
Her commander was not happy. She was and amazing soldier, but women could not serve in the Army this way at that time. He agreed to let her stay in the Army but as a nurse or something more suitable for her gender.
Milunka was not having it. She told hi she wanted a job that allowed her to carry a gun and fight. Her commander tells her he needs to think about it and says come back tomorrow for your answer. Her response? I’ll wait.
He finally caves in and allows her to go back to the camp and continue fighting in the war.
MIlkuna was awarded her first Karađorđe Star with Swords after the Battle of Kolubara in 1914.
In 1916, during WW I, the French rescues the retreating Serbian Army and Milunka finds herself fighting with the French in WWI. She is also promoted to a noncommissioned officer during this time.
I just want to stop here for a minute and talk about this retreat of the Serbians. This was horrific. They started out 400,000 strong and ended with less than 200,000. It’s winter in Europe and they have to cut across the Albanian mountain to have a chance at survival.
She received her second Karađorđe Star with Swords after the Battle of the Crna Bend in November 1916. It is said that Milkuna crossed the battlefield, entered a trench and single-handedly captured 23 enemy soldiers.
She was also awarded the French Legion of Honor not once, but twice. If that wasn’t impressive enough, she also received the Russian Cross of St. George, the British medal of the Order of St Michael, and the Serbian Miloš Obilić medal. Milunka is also the only female to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre in World War I.
Another folklore story of her says that a French Officer had a hard time believing that a woman was capable of fighting in war and made a bet with her. He put up a bottle of cognac as a target at 40 meters, if she could hit it, she could get the case. Well she did, and she shared it with her team.
After seven years of service, Milunka returned home from war.
France wanted Milunka to live in France after the war. They offered her a military pension, but she decided to stay in Serbia. She received a state pension, however it wasn’t much. She worked different jobs in the post office and as a janitor to make ends meet.
Milunka married and had a daughter, but the marriage didn’t work out and she was soon divorced from her husband. Milkuna saved many children off the streets and made a huge difference in her community.
During WWII she helped in the hospitals. She ends up spending 10 months in a concentration camp and there are conflicting stories as to how she ended up there. It is thought that she was invited to a nazi party honoring some big wigs and she turned it down.
But being the badass she was, she survived the concentration camp. At one point she was ordered to be executed but apparently someone recognized her and they spared her. Afterwards she returned back to her home.
Apparently, the Yugoslavian leaders at the time weren’t impressed with her and she became very poor. She worked as a cleaning lady until she died of a stroke in 1973. She was however buried with military honors. So at least she was recognized properly at her burial.