Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes and Happy Black History Month 2016!
For my A’Lelia Walker biography, I’m in the midst of simultaneously writing three connected chapters right now focused on late 1925 through 1926 about white novelist and music critic Carl Van Vechten’s entrance into Harlem and how the community above 125th Street begins to pivot from being inward and self-affirming — and comfortable with that — to the insertion of and fascination by the white downtown, Prohibition-era gaze.
There’s a lot more that I’d say if I had more time this evening, but I didn’t want to let Langston’s birthday and the beginning of Black History Month pass without taking the opportunity to forecast some of what I’m discovering about A’Lelia Walker’s relationship with Langston.
I am very, very grateful to Langston Hughes for giving me a biographical profile and interpretation of A’Lelia Walker that has guided me for many years as I have learned about her and researched her life.
Langston’s The Big Sea, Arnold Rampersad’s The Life of Langston Hughes Volume I and Emily Bernard’s Remember Me to Harlem
Here’s what Hughes wrote in his memoir, The Big Sea: “It was a period when local and visiting royalty were not at all uncommon in Harlem. And when the parties of A’Lelia Walker, the Negro heiress, were filled with guests whose names would turn any Nordic social climber green with envy.”
His description of one of the parties she hosted in her 80 Edgecombe Avenue apartment captures the spirit of the era: “A’Lelia Walker was the then great Harlem party giver, although Mrs. Bernia Austin fell but little behind…At her “at homes” Negro poets and Negro number bankers mingled with downtown poets and seat-on-the-stock-exchange racketeers…A’Lelia Walker was a gorgeous dark Amazon…A’Lelia Walker was the joy-goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.”
What he wrote has been critical to me because many authors and scholars have written about her in a quite two-dimensional manner. But Langston knew her, so I am inclined to give more credence to his interpretation.
Langston Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” was published in 1926 after Carl Van Vechten introducer Hughes to Alfred Knopf.
My research of the last decade for my in-progress book, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, has allowed me to track when they met.
On January 31, 1926 –when A’Lelia Walker couldn’t attend Langston’s book signing at the Shipwreck Inn at 107 Claremont Avenue near Columbia University — she gave mutual friend and author Wallace Thurman two copies of Langston’s new book, The Weary Blues, with a request for him to autograph them for her.
A few days later, Thurman wrote to Hughes: ““Dear Langston. . .Madam Walker was tickled pink over your inscription. She just must meet you, and will try to arrange to do so as soon as you return.”
In late February, Hughes wrote to Van Vechten about an upcoming trip to New York (from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where he was still a student): “I think I’ll be in New York Friday. Of course, I want to come see you sometime during the weekend, if you’ll let me…and also this trip I am supposed to meet A’Lelia Walker. Last time, she sent two books for me to autograph for her, but I didn’t’ get to see her.”
Between 1926 and 1931, Hughes attended many of A’Lelia Walker’s parties at her Edgecombe Avenue apartment and at The Dark Tower on 136th Street. On March 1, 1930, he sent this postcard to her from Havana, Cuba, a place they both loved. ” Dear A’Lelia — I think you would adore Havana. (Have you been here?) The people are marvelous, bars and dance halls everywhere and a too-bad beach. All the leading artists and writers and actresses are treating me royally.” A’Lelia Walker, indeed, had been to Cuba in 1918.
When A’Lelia Walker died in August 1931, Langston Hughes wrote this poem, which was read at her funeral.
To learn more about A’Lelia Walker, please check out some of these blog articles about her
She was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana on the same planation where her parents Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove had been enslaved. The first child in her family to be born after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, her birth was greeted with much hope and promise. But the Breedlove family’s reality was bleak.
By the time Sarah was seven years old, both parents had died. At ten, she moved across the Mississippi River to Vicksburg, Mississippi with her older sister, Louvenia, and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell, who was so cruel, she would later say, that she “married at 14 to get a home of my own.” Another blow came with the death of her husband, Moses McWilliams, when she was 20. Now with her two-year old daughter, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia Walker) to raise, she moved up the river to St. Louis, Missouri where her older brothers worked as barbers.
She struggled for the next decade working as a laundress, doing the back-breaking work of washing clothes by hand in tubs and without indoor plumbing. At the end of some weeks, she’d made as little as $1.50, but her dreams for her daughter made her persevere. One day while her hands were buried deep in soap suds, she despaired that life might never get better. But the solution to her problems eventually came when she developed a shampoo and ointment to heal the scalp disease that was causing her to go bald.
Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro in May 1919.
By the time she died on May 25, 1919 at Villa Lewaro (her mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York), she had founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company and become a millionaire, some say the first self-made American woman to attain that level of financial success.
There is much more to her story of course. How she discovered, developed and marketed her “Wonderful Hair Grower.” How she employed thousands of women as Walker sales agents and beauty culturists. How she spoke up to Booker T. Washington at his 1912 National Negro Business League Convention. How she gathered more than 200 women together for one of America’s first national conventions of women entrepreneurs in 1917. Her prominence as a philanthropist and patron of the arts. Her friendships with Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune and James Weldon Johnson among others. Her $1,000 contribution to Indianapolis’s YMCA and $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign. Her activism on behalf of black soldiers, young women and the rights of African Americans.
Her legacy of entrepreneurship and philanthropy still empowers others. She is often mentioned by businesswomen in America and beyond as an inspiration. Her company is discussed and critiqued in a Harvard Business School course. Dozens of students across the nation prepare projects about her every year for National History Day. Countless young girls have dressed up as Madam Walker for Black History Month and Women’s History Month. She is the subject of numerous documentaries, public service announcements and news stories. Several organizations host annual Madam Walker awards luncheons. The Madam Walker Collection of photographs, letters and business records is the most popular collection at the Indiana Historical Society. She was featured on a U. S. postage stamp in 1998. Recently her name was touted as contender for the $20 bill. There are two National Historic Landmarks associated with her life: Villa Lewaro in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York and the Madam Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Here are some of the books in which she has been featured or mentioned in the last couple of years.
Angella M. Nazarian’s Visionary Women (Assouline Publishers)
Cynthia L. Greene’s Entrepreneurship: Ideas in Action (Cengage Learning)
Faith Ringgold’s Harlem Renaissance Party (Amistad)
James J. Madison and Lee Ann Sandweiss’s Hoosiers and the American Story (Indiana Historical Society)
Martin Kilson’s Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia 1880 – 2012 (Harvard University Press)
Diane Radmacher’s Famous Firsts of St. Louis: A Celebration of Facts, Figures, Food & Fun
As we approach the 150th anniversary of her birth, we can say there are more exciting announcements to come in the new year. Stay tuned!
President Obama greets Pope Francis at Andrews AFB.
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.
Coronation of Pope Pius XI in February 1922
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.
Pope Pius XI speaks to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square in February 1922
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.
A’Lelia Walker (Madam Walker Family Archives)
“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!
Books by poets Cathy Linh Che, Eugenia Leigh, R. A. Villanueva and Ocean Vuong, who read at the Library of Congress on May 4, 2015.
To be a writer is to live in the world of words. To get a thrill and a chill from a well-turned phrase. To become blissfully lost in the scenes and emotions other writers create. To be startled into a reality you had not yet considered.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a poetry reading and panel featuring some of today’s most notable Asian American poets: Cathy Linh Che, Eugenia Leigh, R. A. Villanueva and Ocean Vuong. I was there on behalf of Poets & Writers, an organization for which I serve on an advisory committee and one of the event’s hosts. (www.pw.org).
The words of these writers were powerful, raw, tender, emotional and rooted in family, love, war and culture across the Asian diaspora from Korea to Vietnam to the Phillipines and then to America. After their individual presentations, they talked about “Asian American Literature Today” on a panel moderated by Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis, founding director of The Asian American Literary Review. In addition to being blown away by their words, I was moved that they all had agreed to bear witness to the struggles in Baltimore and across America and to express solidarity with those struggles.
“Asian American Literature Today” panel moderated by Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis with (l-r) Eugenia Leigh, Cathy Linh Che, R. A. Villanueva and Ocean Vuong at the Library of Congress on May 4, 2015.
Ocean Vuong, a 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellow, addressed the particularity of being an Asian American poet: “We arrive at this art through great loss. Loss of land, of art, of language…We are carrying on the continuation of a lineage, not only of Asia but the lineage of storytelling.”
“That’s the gift: to create another world. One world is not enough.”
Eugenia Leigh, Cathy Minh Che and R. A. Villanueva at the LOC.
When asked about the relationship between poetry and politics, especially in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s murder, R. A. Villanueva, founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing and Art, replied: “When you write poems inside a moment, you try to give tribute to that moment. Everything we write is political. Everything we read is political.”
“When you write, you are always including and excluding. You reckon with what is in front of you. We write poems that bear witness.”
“We’re writing the poems that we need to write to build a bridge with others whose histories are as fraught as ours.”
Yes, for me it was a blessing to be introduced to these voices.
Discreetly poured cocktails under the pavilion of George Walls’s Texas Avenue bathhouse made Atlantic City one of A’Lelia Walker’s favorite getaways. Sunrise on Indiana Avenue beach lured her back every year. During the annual Easter parade, when families in springtime finery jammed shoulder-to-shoulder along the seven-mile Boardwalk, A’Lelia and her friends arrived draped in furs and diamonds for their own quite fashionable festivities. Wherever else they vacationed during the intervening summer months—whether Martha’s Vineyard, Saratoga Springs or Long Branch—they returned to Atlantic City’s predominantly black Northside for Labor Day concerts, dances and camaraderie. Like everyone else, they came for chewy pastel chunks of saltwater taffy and breezy rides in wicker rolling chairs. Like everyone else, they savored ocean air and the gentle rush of waves around their ankles, collecting seashells and memories as they strolled barefoot in the sand.
Those Americans without the finances and social status to summer in the mansions and on the yachts of Newport began flocking to Atlantic City, especially after 1882 when Colonel George Howard built an elevated oceanfront entertainment pier the length of two football fields. By the early 1900s, it had become the nation’s largest and most affordable resort, valued as much for its vices as its virtues. Catering to the needs of hundreds of thousands of white tourists were thousands of black waiters, waitresses, maids, bellmen, elevator operators and valets—more than nine out of ten of all hotel employees, in fact. Catering to their needs were black inn keepers, undertakers, seamstresses, café owners, preachers and physicians, who—with their families—comprised a quarter of the city’s total population after the summer crowd had left.
Having missed her usual springtime trip, A’Lelia was especially eager to be back on the Boardwalk in September 1924 after the stroke she’d suffered while in Los Angeles that April.
“Everyone is glad to see Mrs. A’Lelia Walker look so well again,” Pittsburgh Courier society columnist Eve Lynn Crawford reported after she’d been seen about town at several parties.
A’Lelia Walker with Al Moore, a Harlem Renaissance era dancer (aka Moiret, who was Fredi Washington’s on stage partner) in front of the Brighton Hotel in Atlantic City. (aleliabundles.com/MadamWalkerFamilyArchive)
She always stopped by to visit Laconia and Benjamin Fitzgerald, whose Fitzgerald’s Auditorium*—with its soda fountain, billiard room and 1,000 seat hall—was booked every night during that last week of August. “In no other place in Atlantic City, open to the free and unquestionable accommodation of our people, can one find a menu more inviting,” boasted Ben Fitzgerald about his chef’s selection of wild game, live lobster and soft shell crab. Those in the know made their way to the back room for poker and black jack.
At the annual balls hosted by the Philontas Club and the Bachelors Benedict, smartly dressed couples from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York and Boston were still getting the hang of The Charleston steps made popular that year in Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles’s Runnin’ Wild. Harlem’s Happy Rhone and his sixteen-piece De Luxe Orchestra made their Atlantic City debut that season before an overflow crowd at Waltz Dream Academy. The Soap Box Minstrels, a group of 23 harmonizing Philadelphia friends, remained a perennial favorite. A few blocks away the Arctic Avenue YMCA benefit jumped with “Red Hot Mamma,” “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and George Stamper’s Broadway dance routines.
Philadelphia’s Soap Box Minstrels, a perennial favorite for black audiences in Atlantic City, in August 1922 (Historical Society of Pennsylanvania)
Unwelcome at the Marlborough-Blenheim, the Traymore and the Shelburne, black tourists found refuge, rooms and meals at Eveleigh Cottage, Wright’s Hotel and the Hotel Ridley, where Maggie Ridley’s buttery hot dinner rolls were legendary.
Atlantic City Boardwalk 1920s (Thomas Topham Collection)
The long weekend was “a riot of excitement and fun and life,” Crawford reported. “Everyone from everywhere seems to be down by the seaside, relaxing, playing and forgetting that there is such a thing as worry in all the world.”
[This post is an excerpt from the forthcoming biography, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, by A’Lelia Bundles.]
Geraldyn Dismond — later well-known as Gerri Major in her role as editor of Jet’s “Society World” — wrote this about Easter Weekend 1927 in her Pittsburgh Courier “New York Society” column:
“It is a tradition throughout the East that the proper place to make the transition from prayer and fasting to the frivolities of Spring is Atlantic City. True, the last week in August brings the largest crowds, the far distant visitors and the wildest extravagances, but at Easter the ultra-fashionable of the East gather to get the first whiff of salt air and pines, to take the early ocean dip, and the thrilling horseback ride on the sands. The natives who have spent the winter season between New York, Philadelphia and Washington open their white homes of many windows and porches and settle down to the serious business of being hosts and hostesses for the World’s Playground.”
“The season opened with the popular game of basketball Thursday night at Waltz Dream where Atlantic City’s two favorite teams, the Vandals and Buccaneers, fought for the South Jersey title. Three hundred fans watched the fast Vandals defeat the hardy Buccaneers to the tune of 37 to 17. It goes without saying that dancing followed.”
“The beautiful Mrs. Laconia Fitzgerald, whose hospitality is a by-word throughout the East, had as her guests Miss A’Lelia Walker, Mrs. Grace Lezama and Algernon Roane of New York, who motored in Saturday in Miss Walker’s Lincoln.”
1926 Video found on YouTube.
Here are links to more excerpts and updates on The Joy Goddess of Harlem, the forthcoming and first major biography of A’Lelia Walker, daughter of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker.
*Fitzgerald’s Auditorium was purchased in 1935, five years after Benjamin Fitzgerald’s death, by Leroy “Pop” Williams and his son Cliff Williams, who re-opened it as Club Harlem, the night spot that dominated the Kentucky Avenue entertainment scene for three more decades.
During the week of October 19, 2014 the National Trust for Historic Preservation featured Villa Lewaro, Madam Walker’s Irvington-on-Hudson, New York estate, on all its social media platforms. This piece that I wrote for the Trust’s Preservation Blog also appeared on Huffington Post and Jet.com
Inside Villa Lewaro, Madam C. J. Walker’s Irvington-on-Hudson, NY mansion (David Bohl/Historic New England)
Every time I walk through the doors of Villa Lewaro—the mansion my great-great-grandmother, Madam C. J. Walker, called her “dream of dreams”—I always take a moment to imagine the pride and magic the ancestors must have felt in these rooms. From the columns of the majestic portico to the balustrades of the grand terrace, the original stucco façade sparkled with marble dust and glistening grains of white sand when the laundress-turned-millionaire took possession in May 1918.
Villa Lewaro 1920s
The New York Times pronounced it “a place fit for a fairy princess.” Enrico Caruso, the world famous opera tenor, was so entranced by its similarity to estates in his native Naples that he coined the name “Lewaro” in honor of A’Lelia Walker Robinson, Madam Walker’s only daughter.
Walker told her friend Ida B. Wells, the journalist and anti-lynching activist, that after working so hard all her life—first as a farm laborer, then as a maid and a cook, and finally as the founder of an international hair care enterprise—she wanted a place to relax and garden and entertain her friends.
She also wanted to make a statement, so it was no accident that she purchased four and a half acres in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York not far from Jay Gould’s Lyndhurst and John D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit amidst America’s wealthiest families. She directed Vertner Woodson Tandy—the black architect who already had designed her opulent Harlem townhouse—to position the 34-room mansion close to the village’s main thoroughfare so it was easily visible by travelers en route from Manhattan to Albany.
Villa Lewaro Aerial (Courtesy Madam Walker Family Archives)
Indeed, the Times reported that her new neighbors were “puzzled” and “gasped in astonishment” when they learned that a black woman was the owner. “Impossible!” they exclaimed. “No woman of her race could afford such a place.”
The woman born in 1867 in a dim Louisiana sharecropper’s cabin on the banks of the Mississippi River, now awoke each morning in a sunny master suite with a view of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades. The child who had crawled on dirt floors now walked on carpets of Persian silk. The destitute washerwoman, who had lived across the alley from the St. Louis bar where Scott Joplin composed ragtime tunes, now hosted private concerts beneath shimmering chandeliers in her gold music room.
But the home was not constructed merely for her personal pleasure. Villa Lewaro, she hoped, would inspire young African Americans to “do big things” and to see “what can be accomplished by thrift, industry and intelligent investment of money.”
“Do not fail to mention that the Irvington home, after my death, will be left to some cause that will be beneficial to the race—a sort of monument,” she instructed her attorney, F. B. Ransom. As the largest contributor to the fund that saved Frederick Douglass’s Anacostia home, Cedar Hill, she understood the importance of preservation as a strategy to claim and influence history’s narrative.
Invitation to the August 1918 Villa Lewaro gathering honoring Emmett Scott (Courtesy Madam Walker Family Archives)
For her opening gathering in August 1918, Madam Walker honored Emmett Scott, then the Special Assistant to the U. S. Secretary of War in Charge of Negro Affairs and the highest ranking African American in the federal government. At this “conference of interest to the race”—with its Who’s Who of black Americans and progressive whites—she encouraged discussion and debate about civil rights, lynching, racial discrimination and the status of black soldiers then serving in France during World War I. After a weekend of conversation, collegiality and music provided by J. Rosamond Johnson—co-composer of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”—and Joseph Douglass, master violinist and grandson of Frederick Douglass, Scott wrote to her, “No such assemblage has ever gathered at the private home of any representative of our race, I am sure.”
After Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro on May 25, 1919—barely a year after moving in—her daughter continued the tradition of hosting events, occasionally opening the home for public tours to honor Walker’s legacy. Later dubbed the “joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” by poet Langston Hughes because of her impressive soirees, A’Lelia Walker feted Liberian President Charles D. B. King and his entourage in 1921 with a Fourth of July fireworks display and concert by the Ford Dabney Orchestra. In November 1923, limousines lined Broadway as several hundred bejeweled and fancily dressed wedding reception guests arrived from Harlem’s St. Philips Episcopal Church where my grandmother Mae had married her first husband, Dr. Gordon Jackson. The following summer, more than 400 sales agents and cosmetologists journeyed from all over the United States and the Caribbean for the eighth annual convention of the Madam Walker Beauty Culturists Union.
A’Lelia Walker in Villa Lewaro’s Music Room (Courtesy of Madam Walker Familly Archives)
In the late 1970s, as I was beginning to research the Walker women’s lives, I made my first visit to the house. Sold soon after A’Lelia Walker’s death in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression, it had been a retirement home for elderly white women for several decades. Even with its beauty then obscured and its furnishings meager, I still could see the lingering grandeur in the hand-painted murals and the marble stairs. When I interviewed blues legend Alberta Hunter a few years later, she told tales of elegant weekend parties and of playing the Estey organ as she gently awakened the other guests.
Through the years I’ve watched as ownership has moved from the Companions of the Forest to Ingo and Darlene Appel and then to Harold and Helena Doley. They all have been stewards in their own caring way. For more than two decades, the Doleys have invested considerable resources and patience to restore the home and the grounds, even hosting a designer show house benefitting the United Negro College Fund in 1998.
In May 1922 the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Rockefellers Brothers Fund hosted a gathering of preservationists, developers and entrepreneurs to discuss the future of Villa Lewaro.
Among the earliest and most notable mansions built and owned by an African American and by an American woman entrepreneur, Villa Lewaro is one of the few remaining tangible symbols of the astonishing progress made by the generation born just after Emancipation and the Civil War. Without this evidence, our history can be intentionally misinterpreted and easily dismissed. Having walls to touch and doors to open helps our children and grandchildren verify the ancestors’ accomplishments and connect themselves to their rich heritage.
It is vital that we work to find ways to imagine Villa Lewaro’s future so that it can continue to inspire others and to be, as Madam Walker dreamed “a monument to brains, hustle and energy…and a mile stone in the history of a race’s advancement.”
To support these efforts, please click here to sign the pledge to preserve Madam Walker’s Villa Lewaro and here to make a monetary donation through the National Trust.
A’Lelia Bundles is Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. Her website is www.aleliabundles.com