Josephine Baker: The Original Superstar Activist

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.-Josephine Baker

josephine-3Long before Motown and Beyonce, there was Josephine Baker, the original superstar. Born in St. Louis in 1906 her father was a vaudeville drummer and her mother was a washerwoman who had once had dreams of being a dancer herself. Her father left them when she was young leaving her and her mother in poverty. Eventually, her mother remarried and had additional children but they were still quite poor. As a young girl, she worked as a nanny but was discouraged from being too affectionate with the children because of her race. That in conjunction with the race riots in St. Louis in 1917 had a large effect on who she would grow up to be.

In 1923 she landed her first Broadway role as a dancer in Shuffle Along.  At first, she was turned down for the role, she was considered to be too thin and too dark. She worked backstage until she got the opportunity to fill in with when one of the girls was sick. Josephine’s comedic dance routine endeared her to the audience.

During this time France was obsessed with American Jazz. In 1925 she joined the La Revuejosephine-1 Negre. She became a huge hit when she danced wearing nothing but a feather skirt. When that review closed she joined the La Folie du Jour. This popularity even led to movies such as Zou-Zou and Princess Tam-Tam. However, her most famous dance was when she wore nothing but a skirt made of bananas. Josephine became the highest paid performer in Europe. Though Josephine was a huge star she didn’t forget her family. She moved them all out to her estate in France.

In 1936 Josephine came back to America to make it as a performer in her home country as a star in the Ziegfield Follies. However, her home was not so welcoming. The New York times called her a “Negro Wench.” American audiences were not ready to see a sophisticated black woman on their stages and had treated her with extreme hostility. When Josephine returned to France she married a French industrialist and revoked her American citizenship, embracing the country that had accepted her as one of their own.

josephine-2When the Germans invaded France Josephine used her superstar status to the advantage of the French resistance. No one suspected that the fun-loving singer and dancer who traveled all over France and Germany was really a spy. She carried coded messages past the Nazis in her music and sometimes even her underwear. Josephine even became a sub-lieutenant in the women’s auxiliary air force.

After the war, Josephine continued to assist the people of France. Often showing up to orphanages to visit with the children and hand out presents that she bought for them. Her commitment to equality brought her back to the United States in the 1950’s where she participated in protests against segregated clubs and participated in the march on Washington in 1963 with Martin Luther King Jr. Josephine used her star power to draw attention to the segregation that occurred in nightclubs in New York City and openly argued in the media with segregationists. In recognition of her work, the NAACP named May 20th Josephine Baker Day.

Josephine was so dedicated to equality that in 1950 she started adopting children from all over the world. In total, she adopted twelve children whom she referred to as her “Rainbow Tribe.” It was what she referred to as an experiment in brotherhood. She wanted to prove to the world that people of all races and nationalities could live together in peace and harmony.josephine-4


Krystyna Skarbek: Churchill’s Favorite Spy

“She could do anything with dynamite, except eat it.” – Sir Owen O’Malley

skarbek-3One of the longest serving and most valuable secret agents of World War II, Krystyna Skarbek joined Britain’s Special Operations Executive, or SOE, before it was even officially formed.  Also known by her nom de guerre Christine Granville, Skarbek served throughout Europe during the war aiding resistance efforts and smuggling information.

Born in 1908 to the Polish Count Jerzy Skarbek and Stefania Goldfeder, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker, Skarbek enjoyed a certain amount of privilege, including an upper-class education, despite being somewhat stigmatized for having a Jewish mother.  An adventurous child, Skarbek was fond of riding horses, climbing mountains, and skiing; as a young woman, this desire for adventure led Skarbek to smuggle cigarettes across the mountains into Poland.  These skills would eventually serve her well during the war.

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Shirley Chisholm: Unbought & Unbossed

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” – Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm- Women's History Project

Trailblazer Shirley Chisholm was born Shirley St. Hill on November 30, 1914 in Brooklyn. In 1946 she graduated from Brooklyn College before beginning her career as an educator. Shirley spent years teaching children and worked her way up to being an educational consultant for New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare.

Shirley Chisholm was elected the first African American United States congresswoman in 1968, breaking both racial and gender barriers. First serving on the Veteran’s Affairs Committee, Shirley continued the fight for her passion and was moved to the education and labor committee.  Opposition came from some of the men in congress who didn’t respect her in this position. Yet, she never backed down from her cause. She made sure that food stamps were available to people in every state and helped to set up WIC, a program that helps pregnant women and their children with both support and dietary needs.

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Nellie Bly: On the record

Elizabeth Cochrane isn’t a household name – but it should be. Elizabeth Cochrane was one of the first trailblazers for women reporters in the United States. She was an inventor. She was a charity worker. She oversaw a major business corporation. She was an adventurer who traveled around the world by ship, train and burro in 72 days, six hours and 11 minutes to defeat the record set by Jules Verne’s fictional character, Phileas Fogg, in Verne’s popular science fiction novel, “Around the World in 80 Days.” She was a feminist.

Elizabeth Cochrane is better known as Nellie Bly.

Bly launched her journalism career by penning an anonymous – and scathing – letter to the editor of the Pittsburg Dispatch after reading an article titled “What Girls Are Good For,” chastising women for wanting an education or aspiring for any other role besides that of wife, mother and caregiver. Bly signed her letter Little Orphan Girl. At the time, the George Madden was the Dispatch’s editor and so impressed was he by Bly’s letter, he ran an article in his paper requesting the Little Orphan Girl reveal herself and come to his office. Bly obliged and was offered an opportunity to write a rebuttal piece, which she did. Soon after, Bly was offered a full-time writing position with the Dispatch – which is when Elizabeth Cochrane became Nellie Bly.

536px-nellie_bly_practicing_insanityAt the age of 23, she moved to New York and talked her way into an assignment for the prestigious newspaper, The New York World, owned by newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer. Bly took that assignment and with it, she pioneered a new form of investigative journalism by going deep undercover in Blackwell Island’s Insane Asylum in New York. Bly feigned mental illness to get committed and posed as a patient within the facility for 10 days, during which she documented the atrocities committed by the doctors and nurses under the guise of “treating” their patients. Cochrane suffered many of these “treatments” herself after being committed. Her expose was published by Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World in 1887 and resulted in a grand jury investigation and a budget increase of $1,000,000.00 for the care of the mentally ill in New York state.

Her two-part series of articles on Blackwell (“Behind Asylum Bars” and “Inside the Madhouse”) received such public interest, they eventually led her to write the book “Ten Days in a Mad-House.” The first paragraph of the first chapter of Bly’s book chronicles the determined, fearless woman she was, even at so young an age: “Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did.”

Bly continued to write on many important issues of the day, for society at large and for Nellie Bly Speaking with Austrian Officerwomen in particular. She also allowed her readers to form deeper connections with several prominent figures of New York at the time as she profiled multiple “bigwigs,” from boxer John L. Sullivan, suffragette Susan B. Anthony and anarchist Emma Goldman.

When the first World War broke out in Europe, Bly had retired from journalism and was living in Austria. She became a special correspondent for the New York Evening Journal as the only American female war reporter. As a war correspondent, she brought the terrifying reality of war to life for Journal readers safe back home. In an article published on Dec. 10, 1914 by the Journal, Bly wrote:

Everywhere are the grave-shaped trenches where men lived, fought and died. On this ground the Russians were three weeks ago. Now they are only behind the next hill, 2,000 feet away. The many double crosses made of branches shows where hundreds fell as they retreated before the victorious Austrians.

 Bly returned to America in 1919 and continued to write for the Journal as a columnist, up until pneumonia claimed her life in January 1922. She was 57 years old.



Bessie Coleman: the first female, African American pilot

“The air is the only place free from prejudices.” – Bessie Coleman

bessiecolemanKnown to many as Queen Bess, aviator Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to become a pilot. During a time when African Americans faced segregation and the Jim Crow laws, Bessie Coleman not only fought against gender stereotypes, but racism as well.

Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. Her parents were both sharecroppers and Bessie spent her early years picking cotton with her mother. She attended school in a one room schoolhouse before attending the Oklahoma Colored Agriculture and Normal University (now known as Langston University) for one year. She then moved to Chicago where she worked in a salon.

Inspired by pilots in WWI, Bessie decided that she wanted to follow in their footsteps and become an aviator. She applied to aviation schools in the United States but was denied due to her race and gender. However, this didn’t stop Bessie from pursuing her dream. She taught herself French before going to France and attending Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation. In only 7 months, she earned her international pilot’s license and a legend was born. Continue reading

Dr. Mary Walker: Civil War Doctor and Hero

Mary Walker was born in Oswego, New York on November 26, 1832. Mary had an unconventional upbringing. Her parents were abolitionists and farmers who encouraged Mary and her sister to do what was considered to be men’s work. Mary stuck out in the community and was ridiculed for her unconventional ways, including wearing pants.

Determined to make a difference in the world, Mary went on to earn a degree from Syracuse Medical University in 1855. After the Civil War began, Mary volunteered as a nurse for the Union army. Despite her qualifications she, like many other females, were seen as unfit to be Doctors. Still, Mary worked on the battlefields and treated patients in tent hospitals. In 1863, she was promoted to Assistant Surgeon of the Ohio 52nd Infantry. Continue reading