A’Lelia Walker’s Three Husbands

Posted on 09/03/2019 at 8:30pm
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A'Lelia Walker circa 1913

A’Lelia Walker circa 1913

Today’s installment in the A’Lelia Walker story is a quick overview of her three husbands: John Robinson, Wiley Merlio Wilson and James Arthur Kennedy. I’ll write in more detail about her other love interests in my forthcoming book, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, which will be published by Scribner.

To be a biographer is to explore the life of another person in all its dimensions. It is to tell the story that the person wants others to know while also making decisions about how to reveal the parts of the story that person may have tried to hide. It is to discern the nuance of a life. It is to consider the difference between episodes the person thought were trivial and episodes they thought were significant.

Things that outside observers deemed important may have been of no moment to the person about whom one is writing. Events that a peripheral player or wannabe friend considered a big deal as he or she came into contact with a more famous person may actually have been insignificant. And events that were entirely fabricated by enemies and detractors take on a life of their own.

This is where I sometimes find myself as I anticipate the publication of The Joy Goddess of Harlem, my forthcoming biography of my great-grandmother and the daughter of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker. It’s also where I find myself as I think about how A’Lelia Walker is being portrayed by other writers in articles, books and films, especially writers who disregard facts or rely on inaccurate sources.

A’Lelia Walker has long been of interest to scholars who write about the Harlem Renaissance. As I’ve written before, Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Levering Lewis – whose scholarship on W.E.B. DuBois and several other topics I hold in high esteem – created a caricatured image of A’Lelia Walker in his book, When Harlem Was in Vogue. Unfortunately dozens of authors have repeated that misinformation as well the inaccurate speculation set forth by author Eric Garber.

But here is what I know about A’Lelia Walker’s three husbands:

A’Lelia Walker married John Robinson, a hotel bellman and aspiring musician, against her mother’s wishes in 1909. Although they were living in Pittsburgh, they eloped to the courthouse in nearby Washington, Pennsylvania. Less than a year later, they were separated. The marriage was doomed because Madam Walker didn’t approve of Robinson and because Robinson was intimidated by A’Lelia Walker’s financial independence that came from her management of the Walker sales agents for Pittsburgh. In the scheme of things, the marriage was brief and not particularly significant. She moved on.

Dr, James Arthur Kennedy third husband of A'Lelia Walker (Photo credit: Madam Walker Family Archives/A'Lelia Bundles)

Dr, James Arthur Kennedy third husband of A’Lelia Walker (Photo credit: Madam Walker Family Archives/A’Lelia Bundles)

During the next decade, A’Lelia Walker had many suitors and people in whom she was interested. By 1918 two significant love interests emerged: Wiley Wilson and James Kennedy. Both were physicians who also had pharmacy degrees. Dr. Wilson was a graduate of Howard University and Dr. Kennedy of Meharry Medical School at Fisk University. Both were handsome, intelligent and accomplished.

A'Lelia Walker and Dr. Wiley Wilson on their honeymoon in Los Angeles. (Photo credit: Madam Walker Family Archives/A'Lelia Bundles)

A’Lelia Walker and Dr. Wiley Wilson on their honeymoon in Los Angeles. (Photo credit: Madam Walker Family Archives/A’Lelia Bundles)

Madam Walker preferred Dr. Kennedy, who was a protegee of her personal physician and a World War I veteran. A’Lelia Walker teetered back and forth, but her heart was with Dr. Wilson.

In The Joy Goddess of Harlem, I will tell details of the real life drama that unfolded as A’Lelia Walker made her decision between the two men and how that created conflict with her mother.

She married Dr. Wilson in 1919. After they divorced, she married Dr. Kennedy in 1926. Now that is drama of Hollywood proportion.


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