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Why Josephine Baker flew in and out of Croydon in a day.


Last Thursday, attendees at the Museum of Croydon were treated to an account of why Josephine Baker made a mad dash to Croydon Airport and then to London to attend a charity performance by Dr Gemma Romain. We have blogged before about the remarkable photographs of Baker that Croydon Airport Society has in its archives (one that has not previously been blogged is below). It was on the basis of these that we invited Dr Romain, curator of Spaces of Black British Modernism (Tate Britain October 2014 – 5 October 2015), to research and present a talk for us.

Dr Romain outlined the reasons for the charity gala on 29 January 1928 – the Thames Flood of 7 January 1928 in which 14 people died – and the fact that this was performed by an ‘all-star coloured’ cast. She pointed to the popular success of Black performers in the UK, particularly African-Americans such as Florence Mills (1895-1927), and how they were a part of Variety and music hall entertain around the country. The show was put on by composer and musician Noble Sissle (1889 – 1975), whose show (written with Eubie Blake) Shuffle Along (1921) was the first musical on Broadway to written by, about and performed by African Americans. 

Josephine Baker at Croydon Airport in 1928, CAS No. 1218413

Sissle was touring in Europe and working in London at the time of the flood; he used his connections to gather together amazing talent, including Alberta Hunter, who came from Monte Carlo. We think the man to the right of Baker (in the photograph) may be James B. Lowe (1879-1963), who played Uncle Tom in the film Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927). Lowe was promoting the film in England at the time – the first Black actor publicised by a studio in this way – and took part in the performance. The man on Baker’s left may be her press agent Count Pepito di Albertini, who kept her name in the gossip columns and had a pretend marriage with her for publicity purposes. However, we’re not sure of the identity of the other man so if you recognise him or the others, so we can say with certainty, please get in contact!

Dr Romain pointed out that at the time Baker was an immense star so getting to London to

perform for the afternoon was a real draw. The discussion after the talk covered many areas, including Baker’s stardom and resilience as a resistance worker in World War Two and her late comeback in 1974 just before she died. One member of the audience pointed out that she would work at one club until 1 am and then perform at another until 5 am. Baker was a fixture of Parisian nightlife in the 1920s and 30s. The advert from an Air Union magazine from 1928 in the society’s archives illustrate that Baker was probably part of the appeal for tourists crossing to Paris by air.

Dr Romain stressed that Baker coming by plane for an afternoon would have added to the the publicity and glamour that surrounded her. Baker’s air dash, while she was unwell, was widely reported in the tabloid reviews of the performance and the speed in which she travelled by air was heavily emphasised.

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