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Harlem's Josephine Baker About To Be Given France's Highest Honor, A Resting Place In The Pantheon

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- On Monday night, the Empire State Building was illuminated in the colors of the French flag as a nod to the history being made in that country on Tuesday.

French-American performer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker will become the first Black woman to have a resting place inside the Pantheon, CBS2's Lisa Rozner reported.

Inside Chez Josephine on West 42nd Street, Baker's legacy lives on.

Jari Bouillon-Baker, one of her 12 adopted children, manages the Midtown restaurant, which is just steps away from where she made history as a performer and civil rights trailblazer.

Josephine Baker
(Photo: CBS2)

Baker was born in 1906 in St. Louis and at 13 took her passion for dancing to New York, participating in the Harlem renaissance and performing on Broadway.

She later moved to Paris to star in a show and France became home. There, she adopted children from different countries to form what she called "The Rainbow Tribe."

"She liked to say, 'You are all the same. You can be one color, the other color. We're all the same,'" Bouillon-Baker said.

So when she returned to the U.S. to perform, she declined to play for segregated audiences.

"For the world fighting, fighting, fighting all the time," Bouillon said of the fight for equality.

In 1951, Manhattan's prestigious Stork Club restaurant refused to serve Baker, which prompted protests outside.

In 1963, she spoke at the "March on Washington," preceding Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, saying, "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."

Jeremie Robert, the consul general of France in New York, said seeing her name as one of 80 in the Pantheon is meant to send a message against racism and celebrate U.S.-French relations.

"She served in the French Resistance and she even joined the air force and so she was also a pilot in the French air force. So during the war, World War II, she played a role as a spy," Robert said.

She secured passports for Jews fleeing the Nazis.

A heroine for all, Baker died in 1975 at the age of 68, but her story will continue to be told even louder now.


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