Remembering A’Lelia Walker on the Anniversary of Her Funeral

Posted on 08/22/2019 at 4:26pm
Funeral Newspaper Scurlock and Walker Employees

A'LW Funeral Crowd Photo
A’Lelia Walker — Harlem Renaissance patron of the arts and daughter of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker — was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery 88 years ago today after thousands of New Yorkers lined the streets of Harlem to bid her goodbye. As her coffin was lowered into the crypt beside her mother, the mourners looked up in the sky to see Hubert Julian — the pilot known as the Black Eagle — fly over and release dahlias and gladiolas onto the gravesite just as he had released birds when Florence Mills — star of the musical “Blackbirds” — had been buried a few years earlier.

A’Lelia Walker had her own identity, interests and friends. But as one might expect, she often was overshadowed by her more famous mother. As a result, her story has been poorly told by many authors who didn’t bother to do basic research and who have made assumptions about her. What her son-in-law described as a person who was “royal with royal instincts” has somehow been reduced to ratchetness and a reality TV persona. Part of that is the characterization that was created by writers who did not know her as I discuss in this blog post. A'LeliaWalker FurTrim WM MWFA 200 dpi for AAIHS 5-15-2019

During the next year, there will be lots of new information about A’Lelia Walker. My book, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, will be published by Scribner as a companion to my book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. I hope that finally I will be able to set the record straight and to help rescue her from the caricature that several authors have created with their horribly inaccurate details.

There also is a Netflix series that includes an A’Lelia Walker character. As often happens in Hollywood, a great deal of creative license and fictionalization is being employed. It is my hope that those who participate in the series and those who view the series will want to learn about the real person.

I hope they are able to imagine African Americans from the early 20th century in all their dignity and without the superimposing 21st century mannerisms and behaviors.

Walker townhouse at 108-110 W. 136th Street. Today the space is occupied by the Countee Cullen branch of the NY Public Library.

Walker townhouse at 108-110 W. 136th Street. Today the space is occupied by the Countee Cullen branch of the NY Public Library.

For those who know even a little bit about the Harlem Renaissance, A’Lelia Walker is known for the Dark Tower, the cultural salon she opened in her 136th Street townhouse in October 1927. But long before the Dark Tower, she created a welcoming environment for black musicians, actors, writers and artists at the townhouse as well as at her 80 Edgecombe Avenue pied-a-terre and at Villa Lewaro, the Irvington, New York estate that Vertner Tandy designed for her mother in 1918.

Both women loved music and theater.  I have come to think this affinity originated during the 1890s when they lived in St. Louis across the alley from Tom Turpin’s Rosebud Cafe (where Scott Joplin played) and when Sarah Breedlove (who later would become Madam Walker) sang in St. Paul AME’s choir.

Their dinner parties and social events always featured live music performed by the most talented musicians of the early twentieth century. The Dark Tower really was an extension of what A’Lelia Walker had been doing since her arrival in Harlem in 1913 when she hosted her first dinner party there. In fact, that October 1913 dinner party is the opening chapter of my forthcoming book, The Joy Goddess of Harlem.

As I remember A’Lelia Walker on this day, I’d like to share these thoughts from people who knew her and who knew her friends:

Langston Hughes wrote: “When A’Lelia Walker died in 1931, she had a grand funeral. It was by invitation only. But, just as for her parties, a great many more invitations had been issued than the small but exclusive Seventh Avenue funeral parlor could provide for. Hours before  the funeral, the street in front of the undertaker’s chapel was crowded…When we were seated and the chapel became dead silent, [Rev. E. Clayton Powell] said: ‘The Four Bon Bons will now sing.”

“A night club quartette that had often performed at A’Lelia’s parties rose and sang for her. They sang Noel Coward’s ‘I’ll See You Again,’ and they swung it slightly, as she might have liked. It was a grand funeral and very much like a party.”

“…That really was the end of the gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem, the period that had begun to reach its end when the crash came in 1929 and the white people had much less money to spend on themselves, and practically none to spend on the Negroes, for the depression brought everybody down a peg or two. And the Negroes had but few pegs to fall.” (From Langston Hughes, The Big Sea.)

Composer Max Ewing wrote this after A’Lelia Walker died: “I have not seen a lot of A’Lelia over the past few months, but it was always good to know she was up town, going on in her regal way. Her death is something like Bob Chanler’s, in that with her not only one person seems to die, but a large number of others. For she was the center of a certain circle that was kept together only by herself, people one would never see except for her producing them…She is another one of the vivid and colorful and extraordinary personalities that have made the New York scene so extraordinary in recent years. And there is no one to take her place.” (from Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

New York Amsterdam News society columnist Betty Granger wrote this after reading an article in a white publication that misinterpreted Harlem life: “In the ‘twenties,’ A’Lelia Walker was undisputed leader of Negro society. Her humble background nor her rise to riches played a significant part in her role. Rather her ability to gather together Negroes—and whites—who shared similar cultural interests was the deciding factor in her social leadership,” wrote Betty Granger in 1958 in the New York Amsterdam News. “Her estate overlooking the Hudson River in Irvington, NY was the setting for week-end parties that were far from carbon copies of Park Avenue galas—but were personal expression of A’Lelia’s fondness for close friends and a feeling of wanting to share her good fortune with them.” (Betty Granger, “What the Series Didn’t Say about Harlem Society”)

I hope those of you who really want to know about A’Lelia Walker will read the blog posts I’ve been creating for the last few years as I’ve thoroughly research her life

The Real A’Lelia Walker Is More Interesting than the Myth

A’Lelia Walker’s Visit to Atlantic City 1924

Why A’Lelia Walker Is Called the Joy Goddess of Harlem

And if you have any questions about A’Lelia Walker, I am happy to speak with you.




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