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March 2001 - Paris Hails the Black Pearl

On February 2, 2001, the city of Paris paid tribute to the icon of 20th century Black Paris, Josephine Baker.

The cold, grey and drizzle of the day did not dissuade Baker's ardent admirers from assembling to witness Mayor Jean Tiberi preside over a ceremony dedicating "place Josephine Baker", the third official recognition of an African American in Paris. (The first was the dedication of a square to Louis Armstrong in 1991 and the second was the mounting of a plaque honoring Richard Wright in 1992).

Located in the heart of Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement, the square lies on the corner of boulevard Edgar Quinet and rue Poinsot, barely a five-minute walk from the Bobino Theater where Baker held her last performance run. The Bobino is an historic place in its own right - it began as a dance hall in 1800, became a theater in 1873, and was reconverted into a music hall in 1926. Renowned French performers such as Mistinguett, Yves Montand, Barbara and Georges Brassens have graced its stage. Baker launched her magnificent Paris comeback here in 1975, packing the house and dazzling her audiences.

During the dedication ceremony, the Mayor of the 14th arrondissement vividly described Baker's triumphant return to Paris. He recounted how she received so many flowers from well-wishers that she distributed them to the shopkeepers along rue de la Gaité, where the Bobino is located. He said that the French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, was among those who honored her with greetings and congratulations. Baker was booked at the Bobino for a two-month run, but her appearances were cut short when she suffered a stroke. She died the following day.

The ceremony lasted approximately 30 minutes. Recordings of Baker's songs playing over a loudspeaker added to the atmosphere of the occasion. A large photo of Baker was displayed under a white tent next to the podium where Tiberi and others delivered their tribute to her. Aiko Bouillon Baker, the eldest of Baker's adopted children, spoke briefly but poignantly of the emotion that he felt in having his mother so honored. Ursuline Kairston, an African-American singer and performer, then sang a beautiful rendition of "J'ai Deux Amours, Mon Pays et Paris". The Mayor of the 14th followed Kairston to the podium and finally, Baker's son unveiled the street sign that will mark the place for posterity.

A grass roots movement has begun to petition the city to erect a statue honoring Baker in her newly dedicated square. The artist of choice - Barbara Chase-Riboud, creator of the bronze memorial "Africa Rising" in New York City.

Many remember Baker as a scantily clad, clowning little black girl from Saint Louis. But she evolved into a much more sophisticated performer of both stage and screen, and her personal life eventually became one of humanitarian activism. Her amazing success allowed her to act on these beliefs, the most well known example being the adoption of 12 children from all over the world. These children were christened by Baker as the "Rainbow Tribe".

Baker developed a deep, abiding love for France, which she expressed in the song "J'ai Deux Amours". She became a French citizen in 1937, and served her adopted country during World War II as a member of the Resistance and the Women's Auxiliary of the Air Force. She was later awarded the Legion of Honor because of her military service.

Baker experienced adoration and success for most of her career, beginning with the incredible success of her French debut in La Revue Nègre in Paris in 1925. But the 1960s brought a reversal of fortune, with the low point being her eviction from Les Milandes in 1969. She struggled until the bitter end to retain the château that she had purchased for her Rainbow Tribe, but was forceably removed by police. Photographers turned out in force to capture this ignoble moment for the press.

But the inimitable Baker was not to be outdone. She returned to the stage once again, and with the help of Princess Grace of Monaco, established a new home for her family. She toured the world before coming back to Paris in glory. No one imagined that these performances would be her last. When she died, she was given a state funeral at the Madeleine church, and thousands upon thousands of Parisians filled the streets to say their last goodbyes to her.

The dedication of place Josephine Baker is fitting recognition for the woman who gave so much of herself, both personally and professionally, to France and particularly, to Paris.

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Learn more about the fascinating history of African Americans in Paris with our "Discover African-American History in Paris" walking tours.

One of our most popular walking tours is called Black History in and around the Luxembourg Garden.

Explore the Luxembourg Garden and learn about the histories of such luminaries as Richard Wright, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Séjour, and Henry O. Tanner. Learn about the myth of the black Statue of Liberty, and see the contemporary sculpture that commemorates the abolition of slavery in the French colonies.

The tour, led by a knowledgeable and experienced local guide, involves about 2 hours of walking. Black History in and around the Luxembourg Garden is a regularly-scheduled walking tour.

Click here to view the schedule: https://discoverparis.net/scheduled-walking-tours.

We look forward to helping make your trip to Paris memorable!

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2001