The Niagara Movement: A Distant Personal Connection

Niagara Movement treasurer George Jackson with W.E.B. DuBois and NM founders on July 11, 1905

Niagara Movement treasurer George Jackson is not in this photo but was present for the inaugural meeting on July 11, 1905.

Today, July 11, on this anniversary of the Niagara Movement’s inaugural meeting at Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada across the border from Buffalo, New York, I’m reminded of how discovering a distant connection to that monumental event truly made an historical moment come alive for me.

My grandmother Mae’s November 1923 wedding was Harlem’s social event of the year. Lavish. Extravagant. Beautiful. Entirely over the top. The only problem: the bride didn’t want to marry the groom. The groom wasn’t particularly excited either.

Mae and Gordon leaving church-newspaper (1)

Mae Walker marries Dr. Gordon Jackson in November 1923 (Photo: A’Lelia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Archives)

What looked like a Cinderella fantasy and was reported as breathlessly as any People magazine cover story, turned out to be more nightmare than match made in heaven. A’Lelia Walker–daughter of millionaire entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker--had decided that she knew best for her adopted daughter and only legal heir. In her grand scheme–not unlike the marriages staged by mothers of some wealthy young American women who were paired with castle-rich and cash poor European aristocracy–she selected  the scion of another prominent black family.

Mae Walker with her bridesmaids at Villa Lewaro (Credit: A'Lelia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Archives/

Mae Walker with her bridesmaids at Villa Lewaro (Credit: A’Lelia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Archives/

The man A’Lelia chose, I can only surmise as a way to consolidate family wealth, was Chicago physician Dr. Gordon Henry Jackson. At some point while doing research for On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Scribner 2001), I realized that Gordon’s father, George H. Jackson, was the same George Jackson who had been treasurer of W. E. B. DuBois’s Niagara Movement, the forerunner of the NAACP.

As I began work on Joy Goddess: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, the biography I’m currently writing, I needed and wanted to learn more about Gordon’s family. I’d been poking around for years, but thanks to Anne Moore, a librarian at UMass Amherst, I was introduced to an incredible trove of information about the Niagara Movement in the DuBois Library at UMass.

George Jackson's signature appears just below the word "Grove" on this menu from the July 1905 Niagara Movement dinner (Credit: DuBois Library at UMass Amherst)

George Jackson’s signature appears just below the word “Grove” on this menu from the July 1905 Niagara Movement dinner (Credit: DuBois Library at UMass Amherst)

To say I was thrilled when she sent a copy of the restaurant menu from that first Niagara Movement meeting on July 11, 1905 with George H. Jackson’s signature and address, is an understatement. Among the documents, now on line and accessible to all, are receipts signed by Jackson and meeting minutes that confirm his unanimous re-election as treasurer during the August 1906 Niagara Movement meeting at Harper’s Ferry. (Digital Niagara Movement and NAACP documents are also available at the Library of Congress.)

George Jackson's signature on a 1906 Niagara Movement receipt (Credit: DuBois Library UMass Amherst Special Collections)

George Jackson’s signature on a 1906 Niagara Movement receipt (Credit: DuBois Library UMass Amherst Special Collections)

I eventually learned that Jackson was an attorney and Ohio state legislator. After years of living in Cincinnati and profiting from smart real estate investments, he moved his family to Chicago, where he continued to purchase valuable property and be involved in political affairs.

Mae and Gordon’s marriage really was doomed from the start. Not long after their child (and my uncle), Walker Gordon Jackson, was born in June 1926, Mae moved back to New York to work in the Walker School of Beauty Culture, dividng her time between the Walker’s Harlem townhouse and the mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson. In September 1928 she eloped with my grandfather, Marion Perry, an attorney who was studying finance that summer at Columbia University. My mother, A’Lelia Mae Perry, was born the following July.

Coincidentally, my grandfather was born on this very same day 121 years ago!

My grandfather, Marion R. Perry, married my grandmother Mae in 1927. His birthday was July 11, 1892 (Credit: A'Lelia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Archives)

My grandfather, Marion R. Perry, married my grandmother Mae in 1927. His birthday was July 11, 1892 (Credit: A’Lelia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Archives)

I can’t say theirs was a particularly happy marriage either, but their lives fascinate me and have provided a window through which to see other significant historic events and connect in a way I might not otherwise be able to do.


A’Lelia Walker’s Grand Harlem Funeral: August 1931

Eighty years ago this month on August 17, 1931–after a lovely day at the beach celebrating a friend’s birthday– A’Lelia Walker, my great-grandmother and namesake, died in Long Branch, New Jersey. She and six pals from Harlem had enjoyed the sea breezes and dined on lobster and chocolate cake earlier that day. Prohibition notwithstanding, they’d toasted each other with champagne. And, there had been lots and lots of laughter.

Just as the parties she hosted at her salon, The Dark Tower, and in her mansion, Villa Lewaro, had been grand, so was her funeral. Here’s my description from On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walkermy biography of A’Lelia Walker’s mother, entreprenuer Madam C. J. Walker.

“More than 11,000 people filed through Howell’s Funeral Home [on Seventh Avenue in Harlem] the night before the services…In the open casket, A’Lelia wore a gown of gold lace and tulle over lavendar satin with a pale green velvet sash draped around her body. Her feet were covered in apple-green satin slippers. Around her neck were (more…)

Lyric Tenor Roland Hayes’s January 1924 Chicago Concert

Roland Hayes 1924 Chicago Concert (Madam Walker Family Archives of A'Lelia Bundles/

I learned to read music on a Chickering baby grand piano that had belonged to my great-grandmother, A’Lelia Walker, but it really was my mother, A’Lelia Mae Perry Bundles, and my grandmother, Mae Walker Perry, who had musical talent. As the only legally adopted daughter of A’Lelia Walker and granddaughter of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker, Mae had been afforded many privileges, including harp lessons and enrollment at Spelman College.

Several years ago, I discovered this  program from lyric tenor Roland Hayes’s January 15, 1924 program at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall among Mae’s personal belongings. It now is part of  my Madam Walker/A’Lelia Walker Family Archives. At the time of the concert, Mae recently had moved to Chicago. Like others in the city’s black community, she had looked forward to hearing Hayes sing selections–including Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” black British composer (more…)

A’Lelia Walker’s Sterling Silver Flask

A'Lelia Walker's Sterling Silver Flask (from the Madam Walker/A'Lelia Walker Family Archives of A'Lelia Bundles

Now that I’m into the serious writing phase of my new biography of A’Lelia Walker (1885-1931), my great-grandmother and the only daughter of entrepreneur and philanthropist Madam C. J. Walker, I’ll be posting more stories about the discoveries I’ve been making.

I’m truly fortunate to have inherited a trove of letters, clothes, furniture and other personal items that belonged to the Walker women. Among them is this flask.

A’Lelia Walker rarely missed a Howard-Lincoln football game between 1918 and 1931. This rivalry –as legendary among African Americans as the Harvard-Yale competition was to Ivy Leaguers–brought thousands of alumni and friends together each Thanksgiving Day, alternating between Philadelphia (the closest big city to Lincoln’s rural Pennsylvania campus) and Washington, DC. (more…)

Happy Birthday, A’Lelia Walker! (June 6, 1885)

My great-grandmother and namesake, A’Lelia Walker (1885-1931), loved getting flowers on her birthday! Orchids. Dahlias. Gladiolas. Roses.

A'Lelia Walker loved flowers! Orchids. Gladiolas. Dahlias. Roses (From the Madam Walker Family Archives of A'Lelia Bundles)

She had everything else–houses, diamonds, furs, cars–plus great friends, a gregarious spirit and a love of life. Well, almost everything, but you’ll have to wait for my new book, Joy Goddess, to learn the rest of the story!

In fact, I’ve been working so hard on the book, that I’d actually forgotten today was her birthday until my good friend, Janet Sims-Wood, posted a story on Facebook noting that today also is the birthday of Portia Washington Pittman, Booker T. Washington’s only daughter. Heavens, I thought, when I read that. Both of these daughters of larger than life figures not only shared the pressure and expectations of others, but also a birthday! That gives me even more to ponder as I write about how A’Lelia Walker handled being Madam C. J. Walker’s daughter. (more…)

Berenice Abbott’s 1930 Photos of A’Lelia Walker


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.” (more…)