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Josephine Baker wearing her famous banana costume, circa 1926.
Josephine Baker wearing her famous banana costume, circa 1926.Bob Thomas/Popperfoto—Getty Images
Josephine Baker wearing her famous banana costume, circa 1926.
Josephine Baker in costume, 1927.
Josephine Baker, the star of the Follies Bergere, working at her own bar, or cabaret in Paris, France. 1928.
Josephine Baker distributes food to needy in Monmartre, Paris, 1930.
Josephine Baker sits with her pet cheetah, Chiquita, 1931.
Josephine Baker during the ceremony of the Free Commune Of La Folle Butte, 1933.
Josephine Baker, circa 1927, wearing large hoop earrings.
Josephine Baker distributes toys to sick children in Paris hospitals on Dec. 26, 1936.
Josephine Baker in a military uniform, 1944.
Josephine Baker and Jo Bouillon are seen June 5, 1947, during their marriage ceremony at her home, Chateau des Milandes, near St. Cyprien in southern France.
Josephine Baker during a show-revue at Paris, Feb. 21, 1949.
Josephine Baker and two of her adopted children, circa 1950.
Dr. Ralph Bunche, former Palestine mediator and now director of United Nations trusteeship, serves as honorary chairman of "Jo Baker Day" honoring the well-known singer and entertainer. Dr. Bunche is shown presenting Miss Baker with Life Membership in the New York Branch of the NAACP, the sponsoring organization. 1950.
Josephine Baker gives a speech combating racism during an meeting organized by the International League Against Racism, at the Palais de la Mutualite in Paris, 1953.
Josephine Baker receives the Legion of Honor in her chateau of Milandes in France on August 19, 1961.
Singer Josephine Baker with her husband Joe Bouillon and their eleven adopted children at their home in Les Milandes, France. 1964.
Josephine Baker supports Johnson in US elections in United States in October 1964.
Josephine Baker at a demonstration in Paris, France On May 30, 1968.
Josephine Baker appears with a young elephant on stage during her gala premiere at the Olympia Theatre in Paris, April 4, 1968.
Josephine Baker at a gala organized by the Baroness de Rothschild for the restoration of Versailles castle In France On November 28, 1973.
Josephine Baker wearing her famous banana costume, circa 1926.
Bob Thomas/Popperfoto—Getty Images
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These Pictures Show That Josephine Baker Was More Than an Entertainer

Legendary entertainer Josephine Baker—who was born 110 years ago Friday—was an icon of the Jazz Age and a star performer at the Paris cabaret music hall Folies-Bergère. She remains well-known for the comedic elements of her performances, whether they involved "singing an Ave Maria while clad only in a girdle of bananas," as LIFE Magazine once put it, or posing with her pet cheetah Chiquita.

But the Missouri native-turned-French citizen was also devoted to no-nonsense causes, and the photos above show she was as lively on the political stage as she was on the stages of French and American nightclubs and casinos. In addition to performing for troops, she is said to have delivered military intelligence messages written in invisible ink on sheet music to aid the French Resistance movement during World War II. Such acts of heroism later earned her the Croix de Guerre, and she was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by French President Charles de Gaulle.

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And though her move to France had been partly motivated by what TIME once called an attempt "to escape the humiliations of a racist America," the African-American performer also became a key figure in the American civil rights movement throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She was famously monitored by the FBI after she called out New York City's Stork Club for denying her service, and she refused to perform at venues with segregated audiences. And those tactics paid off: Some historians have credited her with desegregating the Las Vegas casinos. As she said at the 1963 March on Washington, while sharing a podium with Martin Luther King Jr. and looking out at the mixed-race crowd, "Salt and pepper—just what it should be."

Baker died in 1975.

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