It was in the gilded halls of the Palace of Versailles, in Paris, France, that the leaders of France, England, the United States and Germany joined to officially end the first world with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. In the wars aftermath, the world sat back with a collective sigh to lick its wounds. It was, in part, this spirit of healing that fostered the massive cultural changes that separated the wild, “Roaring ’20’s” from its more conservative preceding decades. Everything from art to music, theater to books was affected by this cultural loosening of the belt (or rising of the hems.) Out of the star-dust that was the 1920’s rose some of the greatest legends of our time, and though they came from around the world, they all flocked to one place; Paris, France. With the United States’ passage of the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the production, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages, America lost many of its own great talents to our Ally where the champagne flowed freely.
Paris, or more specifically Montparnasse, a neighborhood within Paris, became home to the many artists who flocked there during the second decade of the Twentieth Century. There, bars, cafes and private salons were filled with names like, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, (Gertrude) Stein, (Mary) Cassat, Picasso, Calder, Gershwin and (Django) Reinhardt. It is hard to imagine one small place could hold so many souls of such wide acclaim, or that one could be greater than another, but even among these greats one did shine brighter; the late, great, Miss Josephine Baker.
Born June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, Freda Josephine McDonald, lived a life of extreme hardship. As the daughter of street-performing parents, Josephine at the age of 15 followed suit, eventually attracting the attention of the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show. From there, she traveled to New York, gaining success as a chorus dancer. Though she had made great strides in her financial well-being, racial segregation prevented her from ultimate success. Following the flow of talent across the Atlantic, Josephine found her place in Paris. As a singer, dancer and actress, her shows were exotic, highly choreographed masterpieces that gained her the title of Diva. Miss Baker was the most famous, wealthiest, and most photographed woman of her time. She was also the first African American women to star in a major motion picture (ZouZou) and the first African American woman to gain international stardom. It is she, in fact, that inspired the quintessential hairstyle of the 1920’s, known as the “Bak-Air Fixe”, that we think of when conjuring images of Flappers. All doors were open to her, all borders accessible. She was able to fraternize through social ranks with grace and skill, from peers, to diplomates and high ranking foreign officials. This fame and privilege lead her to aid the war effort as a special “correspondent” to the French Resistance during World War II being able to pass information gleaned from military and government sources to the Allies. For her work during that time she was honored by General Charles De Gaulle with numerous medals including being made a Chevalier (the equivalent of a Knight) of the Legion of Honor.
Miss Baker passed away April 12, 1975.
The end of the Eighteenth century saw the establishment of a new country, independent from England. Though the settlers came here to seek freedom, of belief, of religion, when it came to the creation of their own land, the did not extend those basic unassailable rights to the African American’s upon whose labor brought these new, wealthy land owners their prosperity. Slavery, would, in this new land be a dividing force. The late 1700’s saw states such as New York begin the lengthy process of establishing Abolitionist legislation though the state would not see its passage until nearly fifty years later.
By 1820 the country had expanded rapidly West, at the perilous expense of Native Americans, and in that year, the Missouri Compromise was passed. The law established that all states north of the 36th parallel would be free from slavery, with the exception of Missouri, and all states below would be slave holding. Two years later, in March of 1822, Harriet Tubman (birth name Araminta Ross) would be born into slavery, in Dorchester, Maryland. Along with her enslaved parents and twelve other siblings, she would live and work as a slave in one of the “free” states until she was nine. The following four years would see her sold four more times to men of varying temperaments; one of which would leave her with permanent injuries and epileptic seizures that would last her the rest of her life. As an adult, she married John Tubman a free black man in 1844 changing her name from Araminta to Harriet (in her mother’s honor). Because a child’s status as free or not was determined upon the mother’s status, Harriet and John chose not to have any children.
For any progress the States had made towards the abolition of slavery, the 1850’s delivered a set of serious blows that set the movement back substantially. Expansion continued westward with the Gold Rush (1849) drawing people to California and the Lewis and Clark trail (1830) which had made settlement to the Pacific Northwest possible. The issue of slavery in the newly formed states entered the anti- slavery north into negotiations with the pro-slavery south as each vied for control of the new territories. Both the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in 1850. The first made it illegal for people in the free northern states to assist escaped slaves with food, shelter or aid, and made it obligatory for law enforcement officials to assist in the capture and return of escaped slaves. There was a financial reward given for any returned slave, and thus, many free blacks were put into slavery in the chaos. The latter Act, unraveled the Missouri Compromise by making it the right of each individual state to determine its position on slavery. The Act came with great implications as new states were added to the Union in quick succession during that time.
It was perhaps the intensity of the time, or perhaps her own situation that made Harriet Tubman escape in 1849 to Philadelphia. By then the Underground Railroad, a series of routes and safe houses that stretched the Eastern seaboard to Canada, had been established and was being used by free and escaped slaves to help still enslaved peoples to their freedom. Harriet herself returned to Maryland making thirteen trips on the Underground Railroad to rescue friends and family, assisting more than 70 people to freedom, including her own parents. It is said that she was quite proud at never having lost one of her “passengers.”
1861 saw the start of the Civil War at Fort Sumpter, a war that would last four years. During that time, Harriet worked for the Union Army as a cook and nurse and later as a scout and spy. She is credited with being the first woman to lead an armed expedition, heading the Combahee River Raid where she freed 750 South Carolinian slaves.
The Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Lincoln in 1863 and by 1870 the 15th Amendment which granted the right to “men of all color, creed and religion” to vote, though women were excluded from this law. Thus many of the abolitionists (anti-slavery) and suffragists (pursuing women’s right to vote) overlapped and assisted each other in their missions. Women however, did not gain the right to vote until 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, something Harriet did not live to see.
Harriet’s life after the war seemed, we hoped to be peaceful, it was at least uneventful as far as the records go. She retired to New York where she lived in her family hone and cared for her aging parents. She died March 10, 1913 in New York. Her name, face and story live on as one of the most recognizable figures in the anti-slavery movement.