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Josephine Baker becomes first Black woman honored at France’s Panthéon

A symbolic casket for the iconic entertainer and civil rights activist will be carried in a parade in Paris before entering the monument.
/ Source: TODAY

More than four decades after her death, entertainer Josephine Baker continues to be a trailblazer.

On Tuesday, the legendary performer will become the first Black woman and first American-born person to be memorialized in France’s Panthéon, an honor bestowed upon that country’s biggest heroes. The Panthéon is the final resting place for more than 70 people who made lasting contributions to France, including Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas and Marie Curie.

Legendary entertainer Josephine Baker seen here in the 1970s.David Redfern / Redferns

A Missouri native who left home at 14, Baker first became a dancer and singer in New York City. She then emerged as a star in the 1920s when she moved to France, pushing the envelope with risqué dances and outfits deemed controversial at the time.

Baker, who adopted 12 children, spent time living in a remote French castle that now serves as a museum housing her costumes.

She was much more than just an entertainer, though, working to defeat Germany in World War II. Her oldest adopted son, Akio, said she served as a spy. Her efforts netted her France’s highest military awards, the Legion of Honour and the Resistance Medal.

Baker performs in France in March 1975, shortly before her death.Michel Ginfray / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Baker was also a civil rights advocate in the United States beginning in the 1950s and appeared on stage with Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington as the only woman to address the crowd that day.

She also forged a friendship with Grace Kelly, who walked out of a New York City club in 1951 in protest after Baker was ignored for an hour. When Baker ran into financial trouble in the 1960s, Kelly, who by then was the princess of Monaco, helped make her a popular singer once again.

Baker will become the sixth woman to be commemorated in the Panthéon.Siegfried Modola / Getty Images

Kelly’s son, Monaco’s Prince Albert, said his mother’s relationship with Baker moved him.

“Her generosity of spirit and of heart really always touched me," he told NBC News. "I think that’s what brought them together."

Baker had a stroke in the 1960s and never recovered. She died in 1975 at the age of 68 and received full military honors at her funeral in France before being buried in Monaco, where she will remain.

On Tuesday, a symbolic casket for Baker containing soil from the places she lived — St. Louis, Paris, the south of France and Monaco — will be carried by the French air force in a parade in Paris before a ceremony at the Panthéon.