30 November 2021
American-born singer and activist Josephine Baker became the first American and first Black woman to receive France's highest honor on Tuesday.
Baker became a French citizen in 1937 after marrying a French man.
Baker was honored at a ceremony outside the Pantheon in France.
The Pantheon is a building that has the remains of famous French people, including Marie Curie, Victor Hugo and Voltaire.
Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906. She moved to Paris in 1925 to get away from racism and segregation in the United States.
She was famous around the world as a singer in the 1930s. But she also became known for joining the resistance to Nazi Germany in France during World War II.
Later, she supported the American civil rights movement in the 1960s. She spoke at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.
Earlier in 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron decided to honor Baker because she was an "exceptional figure" who "embodies the French spirit."
Baker's remains will stay in Monaco where she lived at the end of her life. However, a burial container containing soil from the U.S., France and Monaco will be placed at the Pantheon.
Baker was honored Monday in a ceremony at the place where she is buried in Monaco.
Rosemary Phillips is a performer and the co-owner of the park Baker created in southwestern France. She said Baker was a "superstar," and the "Rihanna of the 1920s." Rihanna is one of today's most famous female singers.
Pap Ndiaye is a French scholar who studies minority rights movements in the U.S. He said: "the simple fact to have a Black woman entering the pantheon is historic."
Baker was famous for dancing in short skirts and was popular in Paris theaters. But Ndiaye said people disagreed over her performances. He said, at the time she was singing in Paris, France had colonies in Africa.
Baker was one of many famous Black Americans who lived in France during the years after the World Wars. Ndiaye said they had "a better life overall" than if they had stayed in the U.S. French racism, he said, was "more subtle."
I'm Dan Friedell.
Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on reporting by the Associated Press. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.
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Words in This Story
segregation – n. the policy of keeping people of different races, religions or ethnic groups separate from each other
exceptional – adj. not usual : unusual or uncommon
figure –n. a person who has a specified status or who is regarded in a specified way
subtle – adj. hard to notice or see