In 1917, Josephine lived through an experience that was to shape the rest of her life. Increasing racial tensions in East St. Louis, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, caused by the rising black population after World War I, whites' anxiety over losing jobs, irresponsible newspaper stories, and, above all, racism, combined to create violent and destructive race riots. Black homes were destroyed, and white mobs attacked and killed black people while the police watched and did nothing. Some blacks tried to fight back, but most of them -- about 1,500 in total -- fled to St. Louis. Josephine stood by the foot of the bridge, watching them come. She would never forget their panicked and terrified expressions as they rushed desperately across the bridge away from the violent racism that had chased them out . . .
It was in North Africa that Josephine was reminded of the racism that was still rampant in the United States. Before her shows began, she noticed that the white soldiers were always seated in the front and the black soldiers in the back. She refused to perform until the seating was desegregated. It usually was.
Excerpts from "Josephine Baker: Spy Singer" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.