Josephine Barker was an American born French entertainer and civil rights activist. Born in 1906 as Freda Josephine McDonald in St Louis, Missouri; she was one of the most successful African American performers in French history and the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, the silent film ‘Siren of the Tropics’. In her early career she was a renowned dancer. One of her most celebrated performances was at the revue Un vent de foile in Paris, 1927 where she wore the famous short skirt of bananas and a beaded necklace, becoming and iconic image and a symbol of the jazz age.
She was beautiful, sophisticated and classy. The epitome of how black women should be seen. In her days of performing, she refused to entertain to segregated audiences in the US due to her beliefs and contributions to the civil rights movement.
In her early days, Barker made appearances with her parents in the Midwest, with them often bringing her on stage during their shows. As their careers never really took off, Barker would have to look for odd jobs for the family to survive. Between these jobs, Barker would often dance on the streets, collecting money from onlookers. It was here that she eventually caught the attention of an African American theatre group. At age 15 she ran off with this group and began to perform with them. She also married during this time, taking her husband’s last name and dropping her first name to become Josephine Barker.
Barker flourished as a dancer, eventually moving to New York City and participating in the celebration of black life and art, which is now known as the Harlem Renaissance. A few years later, and now a successful performer, she went back to Paris showcasing her distinct dancing style and unique costumes.
Whilst residing in France, she joined the fight against the Nazi regime when Adolf Hitler invaded the country during World War II. She assisted the French military officials by passing on secrets she heard during her performances in front of the enemy, and transported this information by writing with invisible ink on music sheets.
After many years in France, she returned to United States where she faced segregation and discrimination, things she had never experienced growing up. Her refusal from these experiences to perform to segregated audiences was recognised by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). In 1963 she was one of very few women who were allowed to speak at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in which her speech included the following:
“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.”
She fought for racial injustices well into the 1970s and became a female icon of her time, and one who should be recognised and praised to this day.
Barker’s bold, glamorous and revolutionary style inspired a generation. The bold prints and sophisticated style of the dress in my pictures depicts her class and inspiration on myself.