Langston Hughes called A’Lelia Walker “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.”
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:
In the following account based on her forthcoming book on A’Lelia Walker titled The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, A’Lelia Bundles provides a glimpse into the life of her famous great-grandmother whose own powerful story is often overshadowed by accounts of her mother, cosmetics entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker. I first began to learn about my great-grandmother and namesake, A’Lelia Walker, when I was three or four years old. On visits with my mother to my grandfather’s apartment, I always slipped away to explore a chest of drawers filled with her jewelry, clothes, photographs and opera glasses. Later I discovered that the baby grand piano on which I learned to read music had been played by famous musicians who visited her Harlem home. The first edition copies of Countee Cullen’s Color and Jean Toomer’s Caneon our bookshelves had come from her personal library.
To the wider world, she was a cosmetics industry executive and patron of the arts. Born Lelia McWilliams on June 6, 1885 in Delta, Louisiana, she was the only child of future hair care entrepreneur and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove), and Moses McWilliams, a sharecropper. As an adult, she changed her name to A’Lelia.
In 1888, while still a toddler, she moved with her widowed mother from Vicksburg, Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri,
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.
In 1901, when A’Lelia was 16, her mother left Davis. She then sent A’Lelia to Knoxville College in Tennessee, where she remained for less than a year.A’Lelia Walker’s love of music and theatre, which later would inform her philanthropy, was established long before she attended college. During the late 1890s, she and her mother had lived across the alley from Tom Turpin’s Rosebud Café, the St. Louis piano hall where ragtime composer Scott Joplin often performed.
During the late 1890s, A’Lelia Walker and her mother, who then was still a washerwoman, lived across the alley behind this building which housed Tom Turpin’s Rosebud Cafe.
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.
Madam Walker opened Lelia College, her first beauty school on Wylie Avenue in 1908. (This photo from agatetype.com was shot in 1912.)
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.
Walker townhouse at 108-110 W. 136th Street. Today the space is occupied by the Countee Cullen branch of the NY Public Library.
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.
A’Lelia Walker was in Colon, Panama when her mother died on May 25, 1919.
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.
The invitation A’Lelia Walker sent to hundreds of friends when she converted a floor of her 136th Street townhouse into a cultural salon called The Dark Tower in October 1927. (Madam Walker Family Archives)
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.
A’Lelia Walker visited Ethiopian Empress Zewditu in March 1922.
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 served as inspiration for many photographers, artists and novelists. (Photo: Madam Walker Family Archives)
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’Lelia Walker died in a private cottage near the beach in Long Branch, NJ in August 1931. (This photo from historiclong branch.org was taken in July 1930.)
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.
Anyone who knows me well, knows I’ve been working on a biography of A’Lelia Walker, my great-grandmother and namesake, for more years than I want to admit. After I finished writing On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker--the biography of A’Lelia Walker’s mother–I knew her Harlem Renaissance era story called for an additional book so I could chronicle her life and the lives of her intriguing circle of friends through a new lens.
Research for me is mostly fun and exciting. But writing and editing the first and second and twentieth rough draft of a chapter is challenging. Finding the right word and the right rhythm and the right arc are steps in a painstaking process. Getting to the point where the final draft feels ready for an editor’s eyes is satisfying, but much easier said than done.
Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten knew A’Lelia Walker and captured her personality more accurately than many others who have written about the Harlem Renaissance.
It’s all been worth it, though. Along the way I’ve discovered that A’Lelia Walker–who is best known as the daughter of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker–is very different from the caricature she has become in the minds of many scholars, novelists and playwrights who have written about her during the last three decades. People who actually knew her–contemporaries like Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten–captured her well: Van Vechten in an unpublished New Yorker profile, Hughes in the poem he wrote for her funeral and in his memoir, The Big Sea. In recent years, though, she’s been reduced to the first generation/second generation wealth cliche: “Madam made the money. Her daughter spent the money.”
A’Lelia Walker and her mother, Madam C. J. Walker, with their chauffeur in front of Madam Walker’s Indianapolis home, circa 1914. (Madam Walker Family Archives)
There’s no question that A’Lelia Walker enjoyed the wealth, houses and celebrity she inherited when her mother died in 1919. Yes, she spent a lot of money, but she had a lot of money to spend. To reduce her to a spendthrift who frittered away a fortune is to miss the point of what it meant to be the first black heiress. A narrative that claims she singlehandedly decimated the Walker fortune ignores the context of the Great Depression and the effects the stock market crash had on all American businesses. Like most human beings, she’s more complex–and far more interesting–than the simplistic caricature. She was a big spirit with a charismatic personality. A generous soul. A fashion leader who wore furs, turbans, diamonds and custom made shoes. A social impresario who understood the dramatic gesture, whether she was hosting the president of Liberia for a Fourth of July weekend at Villa Lewaro, her Hudson River estate, or orchestrating the extravagant wedding of her daughter, Mae. She could be regal and she could be entirely down to earth. She had bouts of insecurity because her own accomplishments could never measure up to those of her mother. She had major health problems. She was surrounded by friends who loved her, but also had three unhappy marriages.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that her parties helped define the Harlem Renaissance. From the time she moved to Harlem in 1913, an invitation to her beautifully furnished townhouse on 136th Street near Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X Boulevard) for dinners, dances and recitals seldom was declined. By the time she converted a floor of the house into the legendary Dark Tower in October 1927, she’d been hosting salon-like soirees for more than a decade.
The invitation A’Lelia Walker sent to hundreds of friends when she converted a floor of her 136th Street townhouse into a cultural salon called The Dark Tower in October 1927. (Madam Walker Family Archives)
A’Lelia Walker turns out to be much more a patron of the arts than even I knew when I wrote On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. The conventional wisdom is that the Walker philanthropy ended when Madam Walker died. The truth is A’Lelia Walker contributed to many causes and institutions before and after her mother’s death. She spearheaded a campaign for an ambulance for black soldiers during World War I, donated to the Silent Protest Parade against lynching in 1917 and was the leading fundraiser for the Utopia Neighborhood Children’s Center, a building which later housed the 1963 March on Washington planning offices.
When A’Lelia Walker hosted Liberian President C. D. B. King for a Fourth of July weekend at Villa Lewaro, she hired her friend, Ford Dabney, and his Syncopated Orchestra to provide the music. (Document from the Madam Walker Family Archives)
She regularly hired musicians, photographers, modistes, architects and caterers. She invited theater groups to rehearse in her home and a filmmaker to shoot his movies at her estate at no charge. At various times she let a writer, an actress and a singer stay in one of the apartments in her townhouse rent free. Ford Dabney, whose orchestra performed nightly at Florenz Ziegfeld’s Rooftop Garden during the 1910s, was among the many musicians who played for her parties. She commissioned photographers like R. E. Mercer, James Latimer Allen and James Van Der Zee. And of course as president of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, she was a regular advertiser in black newspapers throughout the country.
During the early 1920s she spent five months abroad. In Paris she stayed in a suite at the Hotel Carlton on the Champs-Elysees near the Arc de Triomphe and was invited to a private showing at Cartier. She attended the opera at Covent Garden in London, witnessed the coronation of the Pope in Rome, toured the pyramids in Egypt on camelback and had an audience with Empress Zauditu in Addis Ababa.
In the process of doing the research that has provided all these facts, I’ve started joking that writing biography is a form of insanity. Temporary insanity, I hope, but insanity nonetheless because of the immersion it requires in another time and in another person’s psyche. Learning what makes A’Lelia Walker tick and figuring out as much as possible about the people who were important to her has required a great deal of detective work: Combing through newspaper articles in dozens of digitized databases. Transcribing and annotating thousands of pages of letters and business records. Re-visiting hundreds of files from my research of the last four decades. Reading scores of books on everything from early twentieth century American theater and the history of boxing to World War I black soldiers and Prohibition. I’m never satisfied until I’ve looked under every rock, followed every lead to its end, verified the facts. I’m obsessive about detail. I’m allergic to taking what others have written at face value, even scholars whose work I admire and appreciate. My long career as a journalist makes me want to know not just one primary source and but a verifying second one.
My books are spread all over the house. While I’m writing Joy Goddess, I’ve moved the biographies about A’Lelia Walker’s friends and contemporaries to the bookshelf directly behind my desk. (Photo by A’Lelia Bundles)
The research materials I’ve gathered during the last four decades are organized in thousands of folders. These are some of the files with biographical information of people who knew A’Lelia Walker and Madam Walker.
I often fret about how long it takes me to get each chapter into shape, but there’s too much at stake when writing the first major biography of someone like A’Lelia Walker not to get it right. I can’t claim that she had the creative talent of a Florence Mills or a Langston Hughes, so this is a different kind of biography. More a story of someone who personified her times, who came into contact with just about everybody worth knowing in 1920s Harlem, who provided the setting and atmosphere for the others to be themselves and whom many people wanted to meet. In that sense, it’s a biography of a group of people and the scene they created in a certain place and time. There had never been a such a community of black people with so much talent, so many options, so much potential in such a concentrated few square blocks.
A’Lelia Walker counted among her friends a group of elegant pioneers, talented artists, world-renowned musicians, successful entrepreneurs, global travelers, socialites. Originals who created a parallel world in a nation that didn’t fully appreciate all they had to offer. Sophisticates who transformed their corner of Manhattan into the center of a particularly fascinating universe. She lived from 1885 to 1931, but her legacy was in tact several decades later when old time Harlemites still remembered her parties as the best of a very lively, very culturally exciting, sometimes risque era.