A'Lelia Walker 1930 by Berenice Abbott (from Walker Family Archives of A'Lelia Bundles)

  A’Lelia Walker–charismatic, statuesque and stylish–posed for many of the most noted Harlem Renaissance photographers and sculptors, including Richmond Barthe, Augusta Savage, James Van Der Zee, James Latimer Allen and R. E. Mercer.
She also sat for Greenwich Village resident, Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), one of the premiere photographers of the 20th century and a protegee of Man Ray. Perhaps best known for her dramatic black-and-white photographs of New York City architecture during the 1930s, Abbott also was an accomplished portrait photographer.

Sylvia Beach, the American owner of Paris’s Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, once said, “To be ‘done’ by Man Ray or Berenice Abbott meant you rated as somebody.”

A'Lelia Walker 1930 by Berenice Abbott (Walker Family Archives of A'Lelia Bundles)

 By 1930, when I believe these photos were taken, A’Lelia Walker–as the daughter of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker and as the hostess of The Dark Tower, one of the most iconic gathering places of the Harlem Renaissance–certainly was “somebody.”

A'Lelia Walker's necklace (from Walker Family Archives of A'Lelia Bundles)

Several years ago, as I was looking through my Madam Walker Family Archives, I realized that one of the necklaces my grandparents had saved matched the jewelry in the Abbott photograph. I’d originally found the piece in my mother’s jewelry box and wore it during the 1960s and 1970s, because it fit so well with the hippie fashion of the times. At the time, I had no idea of  its significance or that it had belonged to my great-grandmother and namesake.

  Now each day as I write new pages of my A’Lelia Walker biography, I look up at these photos on my bulletin board and wonder what in the world was making my namesake smile so happily!
Update: My friend and fellow biographer, Carol Jenkins, made me aware of Abbott’s comments about this photo shoot: “Walker was a delightful woman and I have always liked the expression here very much. It was good so I snatched it out of the air very quickly.” (from Berenice Abbott by Hank O’Neal/published by Steidl 2008)