Her father was a drummer. Her mother, a laundress. Her family’s poverty forced her out of school and into work at the age of eight. She would be a maid, fate dictated.
But Josephine had different plans for her life. She had not chosen her starting point – black, poor, and a woman, in a segregated American Midwest – but from there, she would decide where to go. And at fourteen, she did.
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She left home and became a dancer. At sixteen, she was on tour with a dance troupe that took her from Philadelphia to New York, then…across the ocean, to Paris.
A two-way love affair began. Europe fell for her flamboyance, her African American dance styles and scandalous feathery clothing. She fell for the freedom she found in Paris: no labels, no segregation. Paris did not judge the color of her skin, the place or status of her birth.
In France, she sang, danced, and “became the first person of African descent […] to star in a major motion picture.” The same woman who, in her own country, could not vote, enter certain restaurants, drink from certain water fountains, or sit at the front of a bus.
She befriended Hemingway and Picasso. Christian Dior designed her clothes. In 1937, she chose her own citizenship; she became French. When World War II hit, under German occupation, she joined the French Resistance as an ambulance driver and intelligence liaison. The reason she did: freedom.
But Josephine never forgot her origins or those she had left behind there. In 1951, she returned to the United States and joined the Civil Rights Movement.
She refused to perform for segregated audiences, and in the 1963 March on Washington, she was among the rare women who addressed the masses:
“When I was a child and they burned me out of my home, I was frightened and I ran away. […] It was to a place called France. Many of you have been there, and many have not. But I must tell you, ladies and gentlemen, in that country I never feared. It was like a fairyland place.
[…] I want you to have a chance at what I had. But I do not want you to have to run away to get it.”
Twelve years later, she died, still performing, and in her beloved Paris, but she never forgot her origins or stopped fighting for freedom. She proved to the world that “black is beautiful” and to the United States that self-determination is not just possible; it is a universal right.
“Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul, when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”