As President Obama greeted Pope Francis on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base this afternoon, I couldn’t help but think of A’Lelia Walker’s presence in St. Peter’s Square for the coronation of Pope Pius XI in February 1922. In the midst of a five month overseas trip–that included stops in Paris, London, Monte Carlo, Jerusalem, Cairo, Djibouti and Addis Ababa–A’Lelia made her way to Rome for the pageantry and pomp of this singular ceremony.
“St. Peter’s Rome today took on the aspect of a social International Congress of Nations,” reported La Tribuna, a leading Italian daily. Among the group of international notables, the paper included A’Lelia Walker along with former French Prime Minister Leon Bourgeois and former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour.
Pope Pius XI had been elected on February 6, 1922 after the sudden death of Pope Benedict XV. During the coronation, A’Lelia Walker not only joined the crowds at the Basilica, but apparently was among the few to have received a personal papal blessing.
La Tribuna’s description of her seems quite unusual. While it reflects some of the exaggerated exoticism ascribed to people of color during those years between the World Wars, the generally admiring portrait would not have appeared in most major American dailies whose editorial perspectives remained trapped in racial myopia. Italians, who were not as accustomed to seeing people of African descent, allowed themselves to be a bit in awe of a statuesque, brown-skinned women.
Dressed that day in “an expensive Tibetan shawl trimmed with fur” and accompanied by a uniformed assistant and an interpretor, she stood out even in a crowd of cardinals.
“Tall and slender, with a majestic figure, the divine manner and graciousness…invested her with the bearing of a young goddess,” the reporter gushed. “Her somewhat sloping cheeks, rather extended nose and dark complexion, would have caused the ancient Greek lyricists to name her ‘an Ethiopian Artemis.’ Rising interest is shown in this young lady by the vast throng of international visitors, and her grace and bearing are the cause of much comment. One cannot help but associate her with the races of the extreme Orient or with the no less notable Aztecs of old Mexico.”
“The black race has truly sent us a charming representative in the person of Mrs. Lelia Walker Wilson of New York,” the reporter continued referring to the surname of her then husband, Dr. Wiley Wilson. “Her ancestors surely not so long ago must have been rulers of the virgin equatorial forests between the Gulf of Guinea and Mozambique. Therefore, it goes without saying, that Mrs. Wilson is assuredly a queen.”
La Tribuna made reference to her work with the hair care company founded by her mother, Madam C. J. Walker, and to her plans to travel to Egypt and Ethiopia, where she would meet Empress Zauditu. She must have felt a bit like Lupita N’yongo did when she saw herself on the cover of October’s Vogue or like Viola Davis at the Oscars on Sunday night. But in 1922, when appreciation for A’Lelia Walker’s brand of beauty was scarce, she had to go to Rome to get the love!
There will be more to come about A’Lelia Walker’s stop in Rome in my in-progress book, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance.