My Grandmother’s Harlem Renaissance Wedding

Posted on 12/01/2011 at 5:15pm
 
Mae Walker’s headdress was inspired by the recently opened King Tut tomb

© Whenever I see my grandmother Mae’s 1923 wedding photographs, I can’t help but marvel at the elegance and extravagance. I also can’t resist searching her eyes for clues to the drama I now know was roiling just behind the scrim of the carefully choreographed scenes.

Newspaper headlines from the Pittsburgh Courier –“Heiress Weds ‘Mid Pomp-Splendor”—to the New York World—“Thousands Attend Wedding of Negro Heiress in Harlem”—tell only part of the story.

Mae Walker's 1923 wedding was the social event of the season (aleliabundles.com)

For Harlem’s social event of the season and of the year, there were parties galore, guests from three continents and a groom from a prominent family. There also was a major glitch:  the bride was in love with someone else. But just as Fifth Avenue socialite  Alva Smith Vanderbilt had selected her daughter’s husband three decades earlier, so, too, had Mae’s mother, A’Lelia Walker, made the decision for her.  And that was that.

Mae Walker was born Fairy Mae Bryant in November 1898 (WalkerFamilyArchives aleliabundles.com)

To others, Mae’s life was a fairy tale: a sepia Cinderella and a dark-tressed Rapunzel all spun into one.

After her father’s death in 1909 in Noblesville, Indiana, ten-year old Mae and her eight siblings often visited their maternal grandmother, Samira Thomas Hammond, in Indianapolis. By coincidence Samira lived across the alley from hair care entrepreneur  Madam C. J. Walker’s home and factory. By an even more amazing coincidence, Walker had known one of Samira’s  sons in St. Louis during the 1890s when she still was a poor washerwoman. For Madam Walker—herself an orphan and widow—the connection led to sympathy for Samira’s widowed daughter, Sarah Etta Hammond Bryant, Mae’s still-living biological mother.  Though a descendant of two free men of color who had been Revolutionary War veterans, Sarah Etta’s life had been anything but privileged. Like her mother and grandmother before her, she was a widow in her early forties with a house full of young children. 

Mae's long braids helped sell Madam Walker's "Wonderful Hair Grower" (aleliabundles.com)

 When the Walker women asked Sarah Etta’s permission for Mae to serve as a model to demonstrate their “Wonderful Hair Grower,” she gave her blessing. When they then promised to pay for Mae’s education, Sarah Etta gave her consent for A’Lelia Walker—a divorcée with no biological children—to legally adopt her.
 
Honoring their commitment, the Walkers enrolled Mae at Spelman Seminary, arranged harp lessons and included her in their travels and business operations.
 

With an eye towards a Walker heir, the November 1923 wedding was  A’Lelia Walker’s scheme to unite two prosperous black families: Mae with her inheritance from Madam Walker, who had died in 1919, and Dr. Gordon H. Jackson, the grandson of a Cincinnati coal dealer, who had been one of the 19th century’s wealthiest black businessmen.

Dr. Gordon Jackson was the grandson of a wealthy businessman (aleliabundles.com)

 ”This is the swellest wedding any colored folks have ever had or will have in the world,” A’Lelia Walker declared to Walker Company executive F. B. Ransom when he cautioned her about the growing stack of invoices. “While its purpose certainly is not for the advertising, God knows we are getting $50,000 worth of publicity. Everything has its compensation.”

Mae's bridesmaids wore Chantilly lace over silver metallic cloth. Their silver brocade shoes were custom-made. (aleliabundles.com)

For those who criticized the $42,000 tab as wasteful and frivolous, A’Lelia knew she also had been quietly signing checks for tens of thousands of dollars to fulfill the bequests from her mother’s will to dozens of educational institutions, political organizations and worthy causes. Regardless of what she did or how generous she might choose to be, she knew she always would be compared to her famous mother. The disappointment of others seemed inevitable. Be that as it may, she told herself.  Besides, she believed she was stimulating the local economy with work for black caterers, florists, security guards, milliners and dressmakers.  

Detail from Mae's Wedding Dress (aleliabundles.com)

“In keeping with the late Madam Walker’s policy of encouraging race patronage, all the outfits worn by the bride, matron of honor, bridesmaids and flower girls were designed and made by Negroes,” wrote Lester Walton, the New York World’s only black columnist. “The one exception was the gown worn by Mrs. A’Lelia Walker Wilson, which came from Paris.” And what a lovely garment of gold metallic haute couture it was, a little something A’Lelia had selected during a trip to Europe, Africa and the Middle East the previous year.  

A'Lelia Walker mailed 9,000 invitations to create buzz (aleliabundles.com)

 

Now in the midst of her second divorce, A’Lelia pivoted the energy from her own heartache toward Mae’s wedding  with an impresario’s zeal. She mailed nine thousand invitations–mostly as souvenirs to loyal Walker agents–not because she wanted that many guests, but because she had calculated the publicity it would generate. She coordinated eight days of pre-nuptial festivities featuring a party at the home of Striver’s Row doyenne, Bernia Austin; a linen shower planned by Mae’s debutante club  and a bachelor bash at Craigg’s, a favorite Harlem haunt.  

 

Miller & Lyles's "Runnin' Wild" introduced the Charleston to Broadway (Emory University)

The highlight of the week was the  theatre party for “Runnin’ Wild,” the hot Broadway musical that had introduced the Charleston to New York audiences a few weeks earlier. As guests of Bessie Miller–wife of Flournoy Miller, one of the show’s writers and co-stars–Mae and her friends shimmied in their seats as they watched from the producer’s VIP box.

Among her carefully selected bridesmaids were  Eunice Hunton, a recent Smith College graduate and  later the first black woman assistant district attorney in New York City [and grandmother of Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter]; Marion Moore, a daughter of New York Age publisher Frederick Moore; and Anita Thompson, daughter of a Los Angeles NAACP official and an aspiring actress the New York Tribune had called a black Mary Pickford.

Milliner Mildred Blount, who later designed the hats for "Gone with the Wind," designed the head ornaments worn by the bridesmaids. (aleliabundles.com)

 “Most of the bridesmaids had never met before, but our parents knew each other since we were among America’s small percentage of relatively affluent Negroes,” Anita remembered years later. “In contrast to her bridesmaids, Mae was retiring and quiet, but we all liked her very much. She was a doll, short with a lovely brown complexion and beautiful hair.”

Dr. Gordon Jackson was a graduate of the University of Illinois Medical School (aleliabundles.com)

But Gordon was another matter. ”While we liked Mae, we were not too crazy about the groom,” Anita wrote in an unpublished memoir. “He came from a ‘good family,’ but was something of a spendthrift and a playboy.”

After Mae confided to Anita that she secretly was in love with a young man named “Sol,” Anita tried to persuade her to elope for her own happiness. But Mae was too afraid to defy A’Lelia. Apparently marrying her much older and quite incompatible fiancé seemed less onerous than incurring her adoptive mother’s wrath.

Mae Walker married Gordon Jackson on November 24, 1923, the day before her twenty-fifth birthday (aleliabundles.com)

 ”It all sounded like something out of one of my old bad movie scripts,” Anita wrote. “And Mae was terrified of even listening to me. My wild scheme was not followed, and the wedding went through in great style.”

On Saturday, November 24–the day before Mae’s twenty-fifth birthday–she awoke to a sky as gloomy and gray as her mood. By the time she and her bridesmaids arrived in the rain at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, the sidewalks and stoops along 134th Street and Seventh Avenue were crammed with 2,000 curious New Yorkers eager for a glimpse of what they surely imagined must be a joyous bride.

Gordon Jackson's groomsmen included three doctors, the grandson of a Congressman and the son of novelist Charles Chesnutt (aleliabundles.com)

“A fashionable parade of fur,” emerged from chauffeured cars, reported the New York Times. “Mink coats, squirrel coats, ermine coats. And the jewels—it seemed as if Tiffany’s had got into partnership with Black, Starr & Frost.” Inside the church the groomsmen escorted guests past pews arrayed with fragrant orange blossoms, palm fronds, white chrysanthemums and satin streamers. Like Gordon, three of the seven ushers were physicians. They were joined by dentist Edwin “Ned” Chesnutt,  Harvard College class of 1905 and son of the famous novelist, Charles Chesnutt;  Attorney Henry Rucker, grandson of Jefferson Franklin Long, a black Reconstruction era Congressman from Georgia, and Chicago undertaker Bindley Cyrus, husband of Booker T. Washington’s niece.

The word "obey" was omitted from the vows.

Mae dutifully endured the ceremony without bolting. Ironically and modernly, the word “obey” had been intentionally omitted from the vows, though clearly the directive forcing Mae to “obey” A’Lelia’s edict to marry Gordon had been exempted.

More than 2,000 New Yorkers gathered outside St. Philips Church.

 “When we left the church, the streets around St. Philip’s were packed as though for a Marcus Garvey demonstration,” Anita Thompson later recalled. “It seemed like all of Harlem had turned out to see the wedding. It was a great day for A’Lelia, if not for Mae.”

 
After a reception at Villa Lewaro–the Irvington-on-Hudson mansion Madam Walker had commissioned in 1918–and a honeymoon in Philadelphia during the annual Howard-Lincoln football game, Mae moved to Chicago where Gordon’s family was long entrenched. Predictably, the marriage that should never have happened soon frayed and failed.
 

Walker Gordon Jackson was born in June 1926 (aleliabundles.com)

Shortly after the birth of her son, Walker Gordon Jackson, in June 1926, Mae hired a well-known Chicago attorney and began divorce proceedings. By the fall she was back in New York.

Mae and Marion Perry eloped in August 1927.

Less than a year later at a party hosted at Villa Lewaro by A’Lelia, Mae met my grandfather, Marion Rowland Perry, a University of Pittsburgh Law School graduate and second generation Lincoln University alumnus, who was taking a summer finance course at Columbia. To avoid the spectacle of four years earlier, Mae and Marion eloped. 

 

A'Lelia Walker sent this telegram to Mae and Marion on the day A'Lelia Mae Perry was born. (aleliabundles.com)

Their daughter (and my mother), A’Lelia Mae Perry, was born the following July in Pine Bluff, Arkansas where my grandfather’s family owned a funeral home. His father, Marion Perry, Sr. had been class valedictorian at Lincoln in the 1880s and attended Newton Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. His mother, Ida, was an Oberlin graduate and daughter of a Reconstruction era Arkansas state legislator and superintendent of prisons. 

My mother, A'Lelia Mae Perry, as a toddler at Villa Lewaro circa 1930

 
As for my grandmother Mae’s quest for true love:  I honestly can’t say my grandparents’ marriage was a match made in heaven, though my grandfather did do the right thing by adopting Mae’s son and remained an attentive father to both children. 

I'll always wonder if Mae's true love, Sol, is among these beaux.

After reading dozens of Mae’s letters, I was relieved to learn that she finally developed the courage to assert her own will and that her rather wry sense of humor eventually blossomed.  I’ll always wonder, though, if Mae’s beau, “Sol,” was one of the handsome young men I found on the pages of her scrapbook.

 

Langston Hughes called A'Lelia Walker "the joy goddess of Harlem's 1920s"

As for my great-grandmother and namesake, A’Lelia Walker:  I’ve come to understand that she could be both self-centered and generous, formidable and warm, a tyrant and a charmer. She was complicated, contradictory and inconsistent. By many accounts she also was fabulous, fun and flamboyant. Langston Hughes called her “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” because her parties and her personality helped define the era. In recent years, she’s become a bit of a caricature in Harlem Renaissance histories and surveys, so I’m glad to have access to her personal correspondence and hundreds of pages of previously unpublished documents that I hope will give a more multi-dimensional view.

Understanding A’Lelia Walker–and the role she played as a patron of the arts, as the hostess of the iconic Dark Tower and as America’s original black heiress–is why I am writing Joy Goddess: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance. ©

 

 

About the author: A’Lelia Bundles is the author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, a New York Times Notable Book, a Hurston/Wright Legacy finalist and winner of the Association of Black Women Historians’ Letitia Woods Brown Prize. For more information, visit her websites at www.aleliabundles.com and www.madamcjwalker.com. She also is on Facebook at A’Lelia Bundles and at Madam Walker/A’Lelia Walker Family Archives.

 The material in this article is copyrighted. All photographs are from the Madam Walker Family Archives.

Madam Walker Family Archives Photo Collection (aleliabundles.com)

 

41 Comments

  1. Laquita says:

    Wow – very interesting :o ) I can’t wait to get the book in my hands!

  2. Rita Coburn Whack says:

    Your work is always insightful, descriptive and historical. Not only do we get to see the scene, but the era and the little known wealth and wonder of African Americans during these times.

  3. Marci Walker says:

    Congratulations A’lelia….
    I found this to be an interesting read. To see Black people living in such a grand way when most of what we’ve heard and read about is the ‘struggle’ for economic independance and the fight for equality. Seeing another side of our reality is really wonderful. History about Black folks is always exciting to me. It was like being an invisible butterfly, peeking into someone’s window. The grandeur of the wedding was almost too much to take in. I can hardly wait for more. Don’t make us wait too long…… :-) Marci

  4. Lori says:

    A’Leila,

    This is wonderful! I love historic and biographical literature. Can’t wait until this is released!

  5. I can’t wait to read this unique story! I love how it makes me feel like I’m truly back during such a powerful time!

  6. Anne Collins Smith says:

    Cant wait until the book comes out!

  7. Stephanie Cozart Bur says:

    What a delightful read! I am so looking forward to continuing on this journey through your history.

  8. Mondella Jones says:

    Hi A’Lelia,

    I love, love, loved this chapter. Your words jump off the page and breathe life into the story. Gives me such a vivid picture of the details. And it’s so refreshing to read about Black people living so grand during this time. Can’t wait to read the entire book. Please finish soon and offer an e-book version:-)

  9. Anne Headley says:

    I can tell that this new book will be as gripping as your volume on Madame C.J. Walker. You make the rest of us think about our family stories with new interest.

  10. Dea Win says:

    This is AWESOME!!!!!!!!!

    Thank you for sharing your family with the world :)

  11. Spencer McKinney says:

    Amazing how strides of the past become “simple” entitlements of the future. So many stories untold, nice of you to share yours.

  12. Juliette says:

    Thank you for posting this – I saw the link to it on the Curvy Fashionista site. Very fascinating – like many others, I look forward to reading more.

  13. Dennis Powell says:

    What a great chapter! Love this line “To others, Mae’s life was a fairy tale: a sepia Cinderella and a dark-tressed Rapunzel all spun into one.” You bring her tale to life!

  14. Amazing story. I would bet that this was the wedding of the season. Gorgeous pictures of the bride and the bridal party. This story should definitely be told.

  15. Oh, A’Lelia, this excerpt reads so well. It is smooth, scinitillating and packed with information on the era. I am anxiously awaiting the book. The title is wonderful, too.

  16. Barbara Summers says:

    Brava! What a richly textured story, A’Lelia! As readers, we’re privileged to have this glamorous and heart-wrenching story told from the inside. But as a writer, I marvel at what skills this requires from you–most of all, a willingness to open closed doors…

    • Thanks very much, Barbara.
      And I know you know that glamorous world! I’m determined to tell the story with as much honesty as I can muster. All families have triumphs and all families have hidden stories. Impossible to have one without the other.
      A’Lelia

  17. I am so excited about your upcoming accomplishment as when the book is released (hopefully soon;) I will be able to utilize it as research for my own upcoming books that I’m writing. Patiently waiting with excitement!

  18. Louise Alstork says:

    Wow! I can’t wait to read your book. What an informative and revealing introduction to the life and times of Mae Walker. Your book is a “must read” for all peoples.

    Sincerely,
    Louise

  19. Louise Alstork says:

    Thanks.

    Louise

  20. Nell says:

    This is wonderful! I can’t wait to read it! I was always fascinated with Madame C.J. Walker and always wondered what her daughter’s story was.

  21. shirley moseley says:

    would really like to know more about Madame C.J. Walker ‘ s daughter. I wanted to talk about Madame C.J. during Black History Month , but after reading a little about her daughter . I would rather talk about A’Lelia,who had to be the richest colored girl in America @ that time.

  22. This is such a wonderful journey that provides an entirely different view to demonstrate what can be done in even the most unlikely environment. We are so blessed to have you revealing this pinnacle in time for us to savor and enjoy.

    • Marilyn,
      Many thanks for your comments. I feel very fortunate that my grandfather had a love of history. Because he preserved the photos, documents and records of our family, I am able to tell the stories. One of my key messages to anyone pursuing family history–which is the stepping stone to telling larger societal stories–is to preserve documents so future generations will have access to them.
      A’Lelia

  23. Myriam says:

    Hi Lelia,

    I hope we translate your book in French because i love your story but i can’t read english very well. Your great-great-granddaughter is a inspiration for my mother and me.

    God bless you

  24. C. Rae White says:

    Fascinating read and beautiful photos! Your family history is sooo intriguing. Your new book is going to be a big hit! Also a big CONGRATS on your new position, you must be over joyed!

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