Baker was born Freda Mcdonald on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. She grew up in a financially poor family and worked as a babysitter for white families and as a waitress. In 1922, she auditioned as a dancer for "Shuffle Along" but was not accepted because of the color of her skin. However, Baker was able to perform and received positive feedback from critics when one of the dancers left; she had learned all the moves while working as a wardrobe assistant. In 1924, she became well known after performing in "Chocolate Dandies."
The performer's career was established in 1925 when she moved to Paris and danced in La Revue Negre. Baker further gained popularity after performing in Danse Souvage and La Folie de Jour in which she wore a feather skirt and a costume made of bananas, respectively. By 1927, Baker earned a salary that exceeded that of any entertainer in Europe; not long after she appeared in these shows, Baker became the most photographed woman in the world. In addition, she starred in "Zou-Zou" and "Princess Tam-Tam" in the 1930s.
When she went to the U.S. in 1936, Baker faced resistance because of her race despite her successes and popularity in Europe. She was still able to use her skills during World War II, however, to dance for troops, work for the Red Cross and serve as sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. She also earned military honors working undercover for the French Resistance by using her fame to get past enemy lines. After the war, Baker again visited the U.S., this time with the intention of fixing race relations. In the 1950s, she also adopted 10 boys and two girls of various races and named them her "Rainbow Tribe."
On April 8, 1975, Baker performed for the last time. She died three days later due to a hemorrhage, and 20,000 people paid their respects at her funeral procession in Paris.
Information has been compiled from HarlemLive.org.
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