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A'Lelia Walker

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A'Lelia Walker
File:A'Lelia Walker.jpg
Lelia McWilliams

(1885-06-06)June 6, 1885
DiedAugust 17, 1931(1931-08-17) (aged 46)
Long Branch, New Jersey, U.S.
Spouse(s)John Robinson
(?–1914; div)
Wiley Wilson
(1919–?; div)
James Arthur Kennedy
(m. 1926; div. Template:Str ≠ len)
ChildrenMae Walker (adopted)
Parent(s)Madam C. J. Walker
Moses McWilliams
FamilyA'Lelia Bundles (great granddaughter)

A'Lelia Walker (born Lelia McWilliams; June 6, 1885 – August 17, 1931) was an American businesswoman and patron of the arts. She was the only surviving child of Madam C. J. Walker, popularly credited as being the first self-made female millionaire in the United States and one of the first African American millionaires.

Biography[edit source | edit]

Early life[edit source | edit]

A'Lelia Walker was born Lelia McWilliams in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1885, the daughter of Moses and Sarah (née Breedlove) McWilliams. Her father died when she was 2. Her mother later married John Davis in 1894 and divorced in 1903. In 1906, her mother married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman, and became an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams. A'Lelia grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and attended Knoxville College in Tennessee before entering the family business.[1]

Career[edit source | edit]

Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company[edit source | edit]

A'Lelia Walker became president of her mother's company in 1919 and remained in that position until her death in August 1931. She initiated a number of marketing campaigns to promote the company—including a competition among prominent ministers for a Trip to the Holy Land in 1924—and remained the face of the Walker Company after her mother's death, but the day-to-day operation was overseen by Attorney F. B. Ransom and factory manager Alice Kelly at the Indianapolis headquarters. During the 1920s, A'Lelia Walker immersed herself in Harlem's dynamic social life as a patron of the arts and hostess of some of the era's most notable social gatherings.[1]

Walker Company sales began to suffer in 1929, with the beginning of the Great Depression. Increased expenses associated with a new million dollar headquarters and manufacturing facility opened in late 1927 in Indianapolis, Indiana, placed additional financial pressure on the operation and A'Lelia was forced to sell a great deal of her valuable art and antiques.[1] Her adopted daughter Mae Walker was president of the company from 1931 until her death in 1945. Mae's daughter, A'Lelia Mae Perry Bundles (b. 1928– d. 1976),[2] succeeded her mother as president of the company. Today the company's building is known as the Madam Walker Theatre Center and is a National Historic Landmark.

Arts Patron[edit source | edit]

A'Lelia Walker counted among her friends many accomplished African American musicians. She developed an early love of classical music and opera in part because the choir director at the AME church she and her mother attended in St. Louis was a classically trained opera singer and organist. She grew up in the neighborhood where Scott Joplin and other ragtime musicians gathered at Tom Turpin's Rosebud Cafe on St. Louis's Market Street.

During the 1920s she hosted many musicians, actors, writers, artists, political figures and socialites in her townhouse at 108-110 West 136th Street near Lenox Avenue.[3] The elegant brick and limestone building had been designed by Vertner Tandy, a founder of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and the first black architect licensed in New York State. Almost from the time of her arrival in Harlem in 1913, her dinner parties, dances and soirees included well known Harlem figures like James Reese Europe, J. Rosamand Johnson, Bert Williams and Florence Mills. Live music—from classical and ragtime to jazz and blues—was a regular feature with entertainment provided by her musician friends.

In October 1927, she converted a floor of the home into The Dark Tower, a cultural salon that became legendary as one of the gathering places of the era, a place where Harlem's talented artists socialized with their Greenwich Village counterparts as well as European and African royalty.[4] She commissioned Austrian designer Paul Frankl to create the interior. She also entertained at Villa Lewaro, her country house in Westchester County and at her pied-à-terre at 80 Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem.

Personal life[edit source | edit]

Walker was married three times: to John Robinson, a hotel waiter,[5] from whom she separated about 1911 and whom she divorced in 1914; to Dr. Wiley Wilson in 1919; and to Dr. James Arthur Kennedy, in 1926, whom she divorced just a few months before her death in 1931. Her adoptive daughter was Fairy Mae Bryant, born in November 1898, who became an orphan and got adopted in 1912. She was known as Mae Walker and traveled with Madam C. J. Walker as a model and assistant. In November 1923, A'Lelia Walker orchestrated an elaborate "Million Dollar Wedding" (actually closer to $40,000) for Mae's marriage to Dr. Gordon Jackson.[6] Mae Walker, a graduate of Spelman Seminary in Atlanta, divorced Jackson in 1926 and married Attorney Marion R. Perry in September 1927.

Death and legacy[edit source | edit]

A'Lelia Walker died on August 17, 1931[7] of a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by hypertension, the same ailment that led to her mother's death in 1919. She was surrounded by friends who had traveled to Long Branch, New Jersey to celebrate a birthday party with lobster and champagne in the midst of the Great Depression and Prohibition. Thousands of Harlemites lined up to view her body. She was eulogized by Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr. at the funeral parlor on Seventh Avenue. Mary McLeod Bethune also spoke at the funeral.[8] As her casket was lowered into the ground next to her mother's grave at Woodlawn Cemetery[9] in the Bronx, Hubert Julian —the celebrated "Black Eagle"— flew over in a small plane and dropped dahlias and gladiolas onto the site.

Villa Lewaro was named for Walker (Lelia Walker Robinson) after Italian tenor Enrico Caruso told her after a visit to the property that the newly built Irvington-on-Hudson mansion reminded him of the houses of his native country. Actress and comedian Tiffany Haddish portrayed Walker in the Netflix miniseries Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker which premiered on March 20, 2020.

Madam Walker Urban Life Center[edit source | edit]

The Madam C. J. Walker Company moved from the building in 1985 and the trustees of the Walker estate transferred the building to a non-profit group called the Madam Walker Urban Life Center.[10] Today the building houses a cultural arts organization, is the anchor of the Indiana Avenue Cultural District and is known as the Madam Walker Legacy Center. As of 2020, It's current president is Judith Thomas.[11]

See also[edit source | edit]

References[edit source | edit]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 A'Lelia Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, New York: Scribner (2001).
  2. "Social Security Death Index [database on-line]". United States: The Generations Network. 2009. Archived from the original on 5 November 2009. Retrieved 2009-11-06.
  3. http://www.aleliabundles.com/2013/11/23/writing-biography-an-update-on-the-joy-goddess-of-harlem/
  4. Hughes, Langston (1940). The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  5. U. S. Census 1910
  6. http://www.aleliabundles.com/2011/12/01/my-grandmothers-harlem-renaissance-wedding/
  7. City of Long Branch Death Certificate
  8. Harlem Renaissance : art of Black America. Driskell, David C., Lewis, David Levering, 1936-, Willis, Deborah, 1948-, Studio Museum in Harlem. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem. 1987. ISBN 0810910993. OCLC 13945412.CS1 maint: others (link)
  9. "Royalty and Blue-blooded Gentry Entertained by A'Lelia Walker at Lewaro and Townhouse, Amsterdam News, August 26, 1931, p. 1
  10. "Madam C.J. Walker, Beauty products entrepreneur; local philanthropist Archived September 12, 2010, at the Wayback Machine", The Indianapolis Star, January 22, 2001.
  11. "2012 - 2013 Board of Directors". 2009. Archived from the original on 2013-03-13. Retrieved 13 August 2013.

External links[edit source | edit]

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