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PARIS (AP) — France is inducting Josephine Baker — Missouri-born cabaret dancer, French World War II spy and civil rights activist — into its Pantheon, the first Black woman honored in the final resting place of France’s most revered luminaries.

On Tuesday, a coffin carrying soils from the U.S., France and Monaco — places where Baker made her mark — will be deposited inside the domed Pantheon monument overlooking the Left Bank of Paris.

Her body will stay in Monaco, at the request of her family.

French President Emmanuel Macron decided on her entry into the Pantheon, responding to a petition lobbying for her “pantheonization.” In addition to honoring an exceptional figure in French history, the move is meant to send a message against racism and celebrate U.S.-French connections.

“She embodies, before anything, women’s freedom,” Laurent Kupferman, the author of the petition for the move, told The Associated Press.

Baker was born in 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. At 19, having already divorced twice, had relationships with men and women, and started a performing career, she moved to France following a job opportunity.

“She arrives in France in 1925, she’s an emancipated woman, taking her life in her hands, in a country of which she doesn’t even speak the language,” Kupferman said.

She met immediate success on the Theatre des Champs-Elysees stage, where she appeared topless and wearing a famed banana belt. Her show, embodying the colonial time’s racist stereotypes about African women, caused both condemnation and celebration.

“She was that kind of fantasy: not the Black body of an American woman but of an African woman,” Theatre des Champs-Elysees spokesperson Ophélie Lachaux told the AP. “And that’s why they asked Josephine to dance something ‘tribal,’ ‘savage,’ ‘African’-like.”

She became a French citizen after her marriage in 1937 to industrialist Jean Lion, a Jewish man who later suffered from anti-Semitic laws of the collaborationist Vichy regime.

In September 1939, as France and Britain declared war against Nazi Germany, Baker got in touch with the head of the French counterintelligence services. She started working as an informant, traveling, getting close to officials and sharing information hidden on her music sheets.

Researcher and historian Géraud Létang said Baker lived “a double life between, on the one side, the music hall artist, and on the other side, another secret life, later becoming completely illegal, of intelligence agent.”

After France’s defeat in June 1940, she refused to play for the Nazis who occupied Paris and moved to southwestern France. She continued to work for the French Resistance, using her artistic performances as a cover for her spying activities.

That year, she notably brought into her troupe several spies working for the Allies, allowing them to travel to Spain and Portugal.

“No one finds shocking that she is with her impresario, make-up artists, technicians … so she brings them with her, and information is being conveyed,” Létang said. “She risks the death penalty or, at least, the harsh repression of the Vichy regime or of the Nazi occupant.”

The next year, seriously ill, Baker left France for North Africa, where Gen. Charles De Gaulle later arrived from London with the Free French Forces. Baker gathered intelligence for De Gaulle, including spying on the British and the Americans — who didn’t fully trust him and didn’t share all information.

She also raised funds, including from her personal money. It is estimated she brought the equivalent of 10 million euros ($11.2 million) to support the French Resistance.

In 1944, Baker joined a female group in the Air Force of the French Liberation Army as a second lieutenant. The group’s logbook notably mentions a 1944 incident off the coast of Corsica, when Senegalese soldiers from colonial troops fighting in the French Liberation Army helped Baker out of the sea. After her plane had to make an emergency landing, they brought “the shipwrecked to the shores, on their large shoulders, Josephine Baker in the front,” the logbook writes.

Baker also organized concerts for soldiers and civilians near combat zones. After the defeat of the Nazis, she went to Germany to sing for former prisoners and deportees freed from the camps.

“Baker’s involvement in politics was individual and atypical,” said Benetta Jules-Rosette, a leading scholar on Baker’s life and a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego.

After the war, Baker got involved in anti-racist politics. She fought against American segregation during a 1951 performance tour of the U.S., causing her to be targeted by the FBI, labeled a communist and banned from her homeland for a decade. The ban was lifted by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and she returned to be the only woman to speak at the March on Washington, before Martin Luther King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech.

Back in France, she adopted 12 children from all over the world, creating a “rainbow tribe” to embody her ideal of “universal fraternity.” She purchased a castle and land in the southwestern French town of the Milandes where she tried to build a city embodying her values.

“My mother saw the success of the rainbow tribe, because when we caused trouble as kids, she would never know who had done it because we never ratted on each other, risking collective punishment,” one of Baker’s sons, Brian Bouillon Baker, told the AP. “I heard her say to some friends ‘I’m mad to never know who causes trouble, but I’m happy and proud that my kids stand united.’”

Toward the end of her life, she ran into financial trouble, was evicted and lost her properties. She received support from Princess Grace of Monaco, who offered Baker a place for her and her children to live.

She rebuilt her career but in 1975, four days after the triumphant opening of a comeback tour, she fell into a coma and passed away from a brain hemorrhage. She was buried in Monaco.

While Baker is widely appreciated in France, some critics of Macron question why he chose an American-born figure as the first Black woman in the Pantheon, instead of someone who rose up against discrimination in France itself.

The Pantheon, built at the end of the 18th century, honors 72 men and five women, including Baker. There are two other Black figures in the mausoleum: Gaullist resister Felix Eboué and famed writer Alexandre Dumas.

“These are people who have committed themselves, especially to others,” Pantheon administrator David Medec told the AP. “It is not only excellence in a field of competence, it is really the question of commitment, commitment to others.”

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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Supreme Court pick holds import for Black women in the law

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — When Markicia Horton graduates this spring from the Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston and takes the bar, she’ll be stepping into a world where a Black woman is set to be on the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time in its 232-year history.

With Stephen Breyer’s retirement from the court and President Joe Biden’s commitment to name a Black woman as his nominee, it is likely that, as the 25-year-old Horton moves into a profession, there will be a Black woman as a Supreme Court justice. What that means for her and thousands of other young women of color in law schools or serving as lawyers around the country is incalculable.

But it also comes with concerns. According to the National Association for Law Placement, Black women made up 3.17% of associates at America’s law firms in 2021 but less than 1% of partners. Women of color overall made up nearly 16% of associates at America’s law firms but only about 4% of the partners.

And across the federal bench, Black women hold 45 of the 850 lifetime appointments to district and appeals judgeships — or about 5%, according to government data.

“I feel like it’s really important to have African-Americans in positions that really do affect us,” said Horton, who has a bachelor’s degree in geoscience, and plans to pursue work in energy and environmental law in hopes of representing Black communities that are affected by environmental issues.

“A lot of times, when I see environmental issues that are in predominantly African-American communities or low socio-economic communities, as a whole, I never see any other faces that represent the whole. I kind of want to be that driving force.”

That, Horton said, is what a Black woman on the Supreme Court will bring to the table. “I think it will open so many doors for a lot of us, especially when you look at the numbers in the legal profession and how often African-American women do leave big law firms because of the lack of opportunities,” she said, adding that African American women are not making partner at the same rate as others.

“Having someone sit on the highest bench in the country, I definitely feel like it will open a lot of doors for us,” Horton said.

She said having a Black woman on the court will also be an important way to bring a new viewpoint to the court that hasn’t been there before.

“Reading cases, reading opinions of justices, it’s very interesting to see the difference in opinions based on gender, based on race,” Horton said.

Her point of view at the Houston school is one shared more than 1,100 miles away at the North Carolina Central University School of Law, where Professor Brenda Reddix-Smalls raised the issue during a Zoom session of the constitutional law course she teaches.

Second-year law student Antoinette Stone, 26, said that, with liberal-leaning justices still outnumbered, Biden’s nominee might not sway overall case outcomes, but that even dissenting opinions “still hold weight.”

Fellow second-year student Destiny Boone, 27, thought the diversity on the court was important but felt that whoever the nominee is, her credentials would be questioned more because of her race.

“I personally believe that diversity is important,” the student from Suffolk, Virginia, said, but “I feel that unfortunately, we do live in a society where African-Americans … have to work twice as hard to get to certain positions.”

In North Carolina, examples of prominent Black female jurists include current state Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls, who has been suggested as someone Biden could consider for the vacancy created by Breyer, and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who is favored to win the Democratic nomination in the state’s U.S. Senate race. Beasley was the first Black woman to oversee North Carolina’s judicial branch.

After the class ended, several students lingered to ask questions about assignments, and talk turned back to Biden’s upcoming pick. Adaora Oguno, a 28-year old second-year student from Nashville, Tennessee, said that Biden’s pick will fill a century’s old vacancy that has left issues specific to Black women unaddressed.

“At the end of the day, we’re the only ones who have not had a seat at the table,” she said. “The fact that there has not been a Black female justice yet is kind of ridiculous.”

In subsequent phone interview, Oguno said that she’s cautiously optimistic about Biden’s promise and hopes he’s able to fulfill it. She said that she hopes to work as a prosecutor and eventually become a judge herself, so having a Black woman as a U.S. Supreme Court justice would prove that a pathway to the top echelon of the legal profession is attainable.

“I’ve always wanted to be a judge, but a lot of times you have these dreams and they’re just a dream. It’s not reality. But for me, it makes it where, ‘Oh, this can be a reality,’” she said.


Stengle reported from Dallas.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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