If I'm going to exclude my wife, who was a backup dancer for several well known singers/groups... I'm going to go with the first black actress(as well as dancer and singer) ever, Josephine Baker. I picked her not because of her racism shortened acting career but what she did after becoming a French citizen after renouncing her American citizenship... in 1937. When war broke out in '39, she was inducted into the French military intelligence service, and worked counter-intelligence against all 3 Axis powers by going to high society parties and cozying to Axis officials. After the invasion of France, she began to work for the French resistance and Free French forces, smuggling them out of the country by supplying them with the necessary visas to leave. She carried secret messages for the Resistance and Free French to England by hiding the messages in her sheet music. In '41, she stated she needed to go to a warmer climate to recover from pneumonia (a common practice at the time); in reality, she was performing reconnaissance and spying in Spain and Morocco. After a miscarriage that ended up needing a further hysterectomy, she THEN still recovered enough to go on tour to entertain the Allied troops until the end of the war. Post war, she was awarded three different honors by soon to be President De Gaulle, the Resistance Medal, the Croix de Guerre (War Cross), and being named a Chevalier of the Legion d'honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honor.
The crazy part? She wasn't done. She was a HUGE part of the Civil Rights Movement. How huge? She's largely credited with Las Vegas having integrated live shows due to her insistence on mixed audiences. Why? She refused to perform ANYWHERE that had segregation. In 1951, a Miami hotel offered her 10,000 to play their stage but she demanded the show be integrated. The hotel was the one that caved. She became close and fast friends with Grace Kelly (later Princess Grace of Monaco), when Baker was refused service at the Stork Club in New York, and Kelly came to her defense and she, Baker, and her whole party left immediately. Baker worked heavily with the NAACP, including most famously in a campaign to save Willie McGee, a man sentenced to death over some very dubious rape allegations. She and thousands of others wrote to the governor of Mississippi, asking for the sentence to be commuted to a lesser one, and although the campaign failed, it brought her to the attention of many notable figures. During Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington, Josephine Baker was the only female speaker at the rally. Wearing her Free French uniform and medals, she introduced other famous women from the Civil Rights fight, including Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates, and then began her speech. Most famously, she said:
"I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, 'cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world..."
After Dr. King's murder, Coretta Scott King approached Baker about taking over leadership of the movement, but she declined after some thought, saying that her kids "were too young to lose their mother."
Baker died in '75, and was buried in Monaco, at the request of her close friends, Crown Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. Even then, that wasn't the end of her honors, as last year, France honored her once again by making her the first black woman to be laid to rest at the Pantheon, the final resting place of some of France's greatest citizens. Her son, Claude, asked for her actual remains to stay in Monaco, so a burial marker with a symbolic casket containing dirt from the homes she had lived including Paris, St. Louis, Southern France, and Monaco would be interred.
Hemingway described Josephine Baker as "the most sensational woman anybody ever saw." She certainly is one of the most fascinating, and not only was conventionally beautiful, but had a heart beautiful and spirit, too.