Many thanks to Quintard Taylor and BlackPast.org for inviting me to write an essay about A’Lelia Walker for Black History Month 2014. Here is the essay as it appears on the website. And please do visit this wonderful, information website for hundreds of articles that make Black History Month last all year long. Click HERE to go the A’Lelia Walker essay, which is posted below:
where three of her maternal uncles operated a barber shop. At nearby St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, women parishioners reached out, caring for A’Lelia in the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home while Sarah worked during the week as a washerwoman. As a choir member, Sarah was exposed for the first time to educated, urban, middle class African American women, many of whom were members of the National Association of Colored Women. Motivated by these interactions, she began to aspire to a better life for herself and her daughter. Sarah’s marriage to an abusive alcoholic named John Davis during A’Lelia’s adolescence created instability and frequently disrupted her school attendance.
Her elementary school principals included black Oberlin College graduates who exposed A’Lelia and the other children to opera, German lieder, marches and spirituals. St. Paul’s organist was a classically-trained tenor who appeared in black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s opera Hiawatha at the 1893 Chicago World’s Exposition. Among her childhood friends were Porgy and Bess cast member Georgette Harvey and musicians Sam Patterson, Joe Jordan, and Louis Chauvin.In 1906, 21-year-old A’Lelia joined her mother and new stepfather, Charles Joseph Walker, in Denver, Colorado, where they recently had founded the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, a hair care products firm that soon would become one of America’s most successful women-owned and black-owned companies.
To identify herself with her mother’s increasingly successful business, A’Lelia began using the Walker surname, though she never was legally adopted by Charles Walker. In Denver and then in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as her mother traveled, she oversaw the mail order operation and manufacture of the Walker line of products. In 1909 she married hotel employee John Robinson whom she had met in Pittsburgh, but the union ended after three years.
When Madam Walker moved her headquarters to Indianapolis, Indiana in 1910, A’Lelia remained in Pittsburgh to manage the company’s east coast operations. During this time, she adopted 13-year-old Fairy Mae Bryant, whose widowed biological mother had allowed her to travel with the Walkers as an assistant and model. Her hip-length braids were featured in Walker ads for their Wonderful Hair Grower, a product that healed dandruff and scalp disease. She became known as Mae Walker, later graduated from Spelman Seminary (now Spelman College) and was a Walker Company executive for more than 25 years.
In 1913 A’Lelia Walker convinced her mother to establish a Harlem office just as African Americans were moving into that uptown Manhattan neighborhood. Like her mother, she became involved in philanthropic activities, heading fundraising campaigns for several charitable causes, including an ambulance for black soldiers during World War I and a building for the Utopia Neighborhood Club’s Child Welfare and Recreation Center, which later served as the New York headquarters for the 1963 March on Washington. With Lucille Randolph—a Walker-trained beautician and wife of publisher and activist A. Philip Randolph—she founded the Harlem Debutantes Club as a vehicle to involve her daughter, Mae, and other young women from the community in social service activities.
Both Walker women cultivated relationships with black publishers and advertised extensively in The Messenger, The Crisis, the New York Age, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender and dozens of other newspapers.In 1916 when Madam Walker moved from Indianapolis to Harlem, she joined A’Lelia at 108-110 West 136th Street in a townhouse, office and beauty salon near Lenox (now Malcolm X) Avenue designed for them by architect and Alpha Phi Alpha founder Vertner Tandy. Two years later she moved into another Tandy-designed home, a 34-room mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, 18 miles north of Harlem. Legendary tenor Enrico Caruso suggested the name Villa Lewaro in honor of A’Lelia (A’Lelia Walker Robinson). Madam Walker’s presence in the New York office resulted in conflict, however, as she sometimes usurped her daughter’s authority in business decisions involving their local sales agents. A long-time employee described their relationship in this way: “Fire and ice. They loved each other dearly and they sometimes fought fiercely.”
On May 25, 1919, while A’Lelia and Mae were en route home from a business trip to Panama, Madam Walker died, leaving A’Lelia as the 34-year-old company president and heiress of an estate and homes valued at a million dollars.
Devastated by her mother’s death, she immediately married Dr. Wiley Merlio Wilson, a Howard University-trained physician and pharmacist, whom she had met several years earlier when he and his brother ran businesses in Pine Bluff, Arkansas and St. Louis. As a wedding gift, she purchased a building for his medical clinic, Wilson Sanitarium, at 138th and Seventh Avenue in one of the Strivers Row blocks. They divorced in 1924. Two years later, she married Dr. James Arthur Kennedy, a decorated World War I captain, who later became the assistant director at Tuskegee’s Veteran’s Hospital.
With her sizeable fortune backed by the Walker hair care products empire, A’Lelia Walker became a patron of the newly emerging Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. She hosted some of the most memorable parties of that decade, lending a glamorous, glitzy aura to the social scene above 110th Street.
At the Dark Tower—a converted floor of her 136th Street townhouse named for Cullen’s Opportunity column and poem—and at her 80 Edgecombe Avenue pied-á-terre, she welcomed Harlem and Greenwich Village writers, artists, actors, and musicians at a time when blacks and whites seldom socialized on equal terms.
Also, during an era when few women traveled alone, A’Lelia Walker visited Africa, Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Central and South America. On a transatlantic voyage on the luxury liner Paris in late 1921, she occupied the first class cabin next to French Prime Minister Aristide Briand. In 1922 she witnessed the coronation of Pope Pius XI in Rome, Italy and became the first American to meet Empress Zewditu I in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
As a patron of the arts, she supported J. Rosamond Johnson’s Harlem Music School Settlement which offered classical music training for black students. Musicians James Reese Europe, Ford Dabney, Joseph Douglass, Harry T. Burleigh, Turner Layton, and Alberta Hunter performed at her dinners and parties. She also opened her home to theatrical rehearsals, movie shoots and art exhibitions. Among the photographers whose careers she promoted were R. E. Mercer and James Allen. At various times, actress Edna Lewis Thomas, author Eric Walrond, and singer Taylor Gordon lived rent-free at her Harlem house.
The best known black socialite of her time, A’Lelia Walker was such a rarity that Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes called her “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” and noted that her parties “were filled with guests whose names would turn any Nordic social climber green with envy.” In April 1929, composer Max Ewing wrote, “Wherever else one is invited or expected, one must cancel all other plans if invited to A’Lelia’s! She is the Great Black Empress, She Who Must Be Obeyed!”
A’Lelia Walker personified the spirit and flamboyance of the Harlem Renaissance. Her always stylish appearance, which mixed regal, statuesque African beauty with haute couture, inspired poets, novelists, and painters. “She had a superb figure, the type that artists like to draw,” said a reporter who knew her well. Among those for whom she posed were photographer Berenice Abbott and sculptors Richmond Barthé and Augusta Savage. With admiration, close friend Langston Hughes called her a “gorgeous dark Amazon,” a phrase fraught with powerful meaning in an era when light-skinned African Americans often were perceived as more beautiful by many blacks and most whites. Literary critic Carl Van Vechten and Renaissance authors Zora Neale Hurston, George Schuyler, and Wallace Thurman created characters inspired by her.
As the first internationally visible black American heiress with celebrity status, she displayed an impresario’s gift for staging elaborate extravaganzas that made headlines, filled society gossip columns, and scandalized the more straitlaced social arbiters and race leaders of her mother’s generation. Her most memorable affairs included her daughter Mae’s lavish 1923 nuptials to Dr. Gordon Jackson, son of Niagara Movement treasurer George Jackson, and a fireworks-filled 1921 Fourth of July celebration at Villa Lewaro for C.D.B. King, the President of Liberia.
Like other entrepreneurs and art patrons of the era, A’Lelia Walker basked in the euphoria of the Jazz Age and like many of her contemporaries she personally felt the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression. During this period as Walker Company sales plunged, her long-troublesome hypertension worsened. In 1931 she divorced Dr. James Arthur Kennedy.
Like many children of self-made figures, she struggled to define herself outside the sphere of her mother’s influence, expectations and legacy. On August 17, 1931, after an enjoyable day celebrating a friend’s birthday at the beach in Long Branch, New Jersey, A’Lelia Walker died from a cerebral hemorrhage.
A few days later, several thousand New Yorkers crowded the streets outside the Harlem funeral parlor where her body lay in repose. As her casket was lowered into the crypt next to her famous mother at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, aviator Hubert Julian, known as “The Black Eagle,” flew over the site releasing dahlias and gladiolas. Of her death, Langston Hughes wrote “That was really the end of the gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem…The depression brought everybody down a peg or two. And the Negroes had but few pegs to fall.”
A large collection of A’Lelia Walker’s letters, photographs, financial records, clothes and personal effects are in the author’s Madam Walker/A’Lelia Walker Family Archives in Washington, DC. Several dozen additional personal letters and other Walker Company materials are in the Madam C. J. Walker Collection at the Indiana Historical Society. Details of Walker’s life, especially prior to 1920, are included in On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Scribner 2001) by A’Lelia Bundles, whoseThe Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, is forthcoming from Scribner in 2015. Articles and photographs also appear at https://aleliabundles.com/ and http://www.madamcjwalker.com/. Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea (1940) and Carl Van Vechten’s unpublished New Yorker profile in “Keep A-Inchin’ Along”: Selected Writings of Carl Van Vechten about Black Art and Letters, ed. Bruce Kellner, provide useful accounts of her later life.