Joséphine Baker became the first black woman to be honored at the Panthéon in Paris

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This week, the performer Joséphine Baker received one of the highest French distinctions, by being inducted posthumously into the Pantheon in Paris. Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906, the artist and activist who would go on to become world famous as Josephine Baker became one of less than 100 people inducted into the Nation’s Heroes Mausoleum, which in fact not only the first black woman in history to receive this honor, but also the first American and the first entertainer.

For the ceremony, chaired Tuesday evening by French President Emmanuel Macron, members of the Baker family, celebrities, politicians and even Prince Albert of Monaco attended in memory of the artist, who moved to France to age 19, in 1925. Over the years that followed, she became a leading figure in the French performance scene, performing on stage as a dancer and singer, and eventually becoming the first black woman to star in a feature film, the 1927 silent film The Mermaid of the Tropics.

“She broke down barriers,” Macron said. “She has become a part of the heart and the mind of the French … Joséphine Baker, you enter the Pantheon because when you were born American, deep down there was no one more French than you.”

Although the star’s body will remain where it was buried in Monaco after his death in 1975 at the age of 68, a coffin bearing dirt handles important places in Baker’s life was transported during the ceremony as her song “I have two loves” (“I have two loves”) was performed. A new plaque will commemorate his contributions to the Pantheon in Paris.

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