Born into poverty in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906, Josephine Baker achieved great fame as a singer and dancer, primarily in Paris, but also in various cities throughout Europe. Traveling to Paris at the young age of 19, she quickly became tremendously popular there, making that her permanent home. She was known for her erotic dancing and scanty costumes. She counted among her friends such famous people as Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau. Because of her celebrity, she was recruited as a spy during World War II, gathering valuable information about German troop locations from her frequent social encounters with a broad range of the international community in Paris at that time. She also toured North Africa to entertain British, French, and American soldiers, charging no admission. In recognition of her wartime service, she received the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Resistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur. Baker adopted 12 children, born in countries all over the world including Korea, Japan, Finland, Israel, Columbia, and Venezuela. She was deeply committed to creating a family from diverse backgrounds and called her children her “Rainbow Tribe.” After some financial struggles later in life, she enjoyed hugely successful performances in Paris, London, and New York City during her final years. She died in 1975 at the age of 68, days after a sold-out revue in Paris. Her artistry and open-minded outlook continue to impress us.
Josephine Baker (Photo by Paul Nadar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Amelia Earhart is another American woman whose bravery and drive have made her admired and read about to this day. Born in 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, Earhart was always an adventurous person. At 23, an opportunity to hitch a ride on a plane ignited her passion to be a pilot. After earning her pilot’s license in 1923, she built up her flying experience, joined the American Aeronautical Society, and wrote local newspaper columns promoting flying. In 1928, she received an offer to be a passenger in a transatlantic flight, along with pilot, Wilmer Stoltz, and mechanic, Louis Gordon. Although her only formal role on the flight was to keep the flight log, the three were feted with a ticker-tape parade in New York City on their return. With her reputation established, celebrity endorsements helped Earhart finance her flying. In 1928, she became the first woman to fly alone across the United States and back. Although she married in 1931, she made very clear her belief in an equal partnership in marriage and pointedly kept her own name. In 1932, Earhart flew alone from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland in 14 hours, earning herself many awards for this non-stop, solo transatlantic flight. She made several more long-distance solo flights including from Hawaii to California, from Los Angeles to Mexico City, and from Mexico City to New York. Earhart next took on the challenge of a round-the-world-flight. A specially designed plane to accommodate extra fuel tanks was built to her specifications at Lockheed Aircraft. Beginning her flight in California, Earhart and Fred Noonan, her navigator, flew east stopping in Florida, South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, and Australia, arriving in New Guinea in June, 1937. She was in the home stretch of her journey with 7,000 miles yet to go when her plane was lost at sea. She was declared dead a year and a half later. Earhart’s charisma, her focused pursuit of her ambitions as a pilot, and her untimely death at 39 have made her an enduring romantic figure, greatly admired and loved.
Amelia Earhart Underwood & Underwood (active 1880 – c. 1950), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
You have probably never heard of African-American, Oseola McCarty, who first came into the public eye at the age of 87 when it became known she had established a trust worth $150,000 to benefit poor students at The University of Southern Mississippi. McCarty was born into poverty in Mississippi in 1908. When her unmarried aunt became ill and needed home care, McCarty quit school at the sixth grade to care for her. She eventually worked as a washerwoman all her adult life, only retiring at the age of 86 because of arthritis. Living modestly and working hard all her life, she accumulated significant savings. Bankers noticed her financial success and assisted with planning her estate. She designated 60% of her estate should go to support needy students, preferably African-American, at Southern Mississippi. When news of her exceptional financial success and generosity became public, McCarty received many awards and accolades, including the Presidential Citizens Medal awarded by President Bill Clinton and an honorary doctorate from Harvard. She had worked hard all her life and hoped she might make life easier for some young African-Americans who came after her. In 2020, a life-size, bronze sculpture of McCarty was unveiled on the Southern Mississippi campus. She is seated with an empty chair next to her so others might sit next to her and reflect on her legacy.
Oseola McCarty statue Karelia22, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons