Editor’s Note: This week, The Root commemorates Black History Month with a series on little-known or forgotten rebels, celebrating black America’s legacy of defiance.
The intersection of 136 and Lenox Ave in Harlem is a busy one: within feet of each other are a mosque, a beauty supply, a Dunkin’ Donuts, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Countee Cullen Library, named for the famed Harlem Renaissance poet. It is a quintessential mix of commercial and intellectual activity in a neighborhood known for being a hub of black life.
If you were to time travel back 100 years, at the very spot where the library—a hefty block of a building—now sits, you might see Cullen himself, perhaps alongside Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Paul Robeson, walking through the doors of the ritzy “Dark Tower,” the stately pair of townhouses owned by Madam C.J. Walker and her only daughter, A’Lelia Walker.
Everyone rightfully knows the elder Walker’s name—the groundbreaking hair and beauty entrepreneur was the country’s first black woman to be a self-made millionaire, revolutionizing the way black Americans groom and style their hair. Lesser known is A’Lelia, an heiress frequently remembered as a “party girl” for the lavish, multiracial soirees she would host in her Harlem properties. But this patron of the Renaissance was responsible for far more than ritzy parties and decadent spreads: she provided vibrant, progressive, safe spaces for artists and intellectuals—allowing them to be the fullest versions of themselves in a country that treated blackness, queerness, and non-conformity as a crime.
In a 2015 NPR article, Hugh Ryan observes that A’Lelia Walker, crowned “the Joy Goddess” by Langston Hughes, has been portrayed rather unkindly, especially in the shadow of her mother’s legacy:
A’Lelia is rarely remembered at all, and when she is, it is as the prodigal daughter under whom the Walker hair care empire shrunk drastically. Or, as historian Eric Garber put it in his essay A Spectacle in Color, while “Madam Walker had been civic-minded, donating thousands of dollars to charity, A’Lelia used most of her inheritance to throw lavish parties.”
But the parties and events thrown at 136th Street weren’t frivolous affairs, they provided “a central location for the Harlem Renaissance,” her great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles said: “These parties had all the artists, musicians, writers, actors who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, but it was also the newspaper publishers, the Civil Rights leaders—everybody, at some point.”
Revolutionary creativity cannot exist without community, and Walker provided that for the black intelligentsia of the day. It wasn’t a minor feat. The Dark Tower’s very existence was borderline unfathomable: even in Harlem at the turn of the 20th century, very few black folks owned property.
“For [Madam C.J. Walker and A’Lelia] to actually purchase a building and a home there was unusual,” Bundles noted, “And by opening this double townhouse...they were making a statement about their prominence and affluence in Harlem.”
At A’Lelia’s personal residence, parties of a different kind provided a space for queer lovers and breakers of the color-line to gather, indulge, and revel.
Harlem at the turn of the century was, in the words of historian Henry Louis Gates, “surely as gay as it was black.” But while queerness was a staple of the social scene, with women and men of all races mingling in private parties and cabarets, it had to be hidden from the brutal batons of New York City’s vice squads. Even though New York was a freer place than the Jim Crow South, it was still far from free. As Saidiyah Hartman documented in her groundbreaking book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, the NYPD fiercely enforced the color line through unfounded claims of “prostitution” or “vagrancy.” Policing gender conformity and romantic relationships was another crucial way of keeping black people like the gender-bending blues singer of the era, Gladys Bentley, in line.
Within that context, the area’s cabarets could legitimately be considered ”the sole institution not defined by Jim Crow and that refused to embrace segregation,” as Hartman writes—some of the truest democratic spaces in America. While not “institutions” in the classic sense, Walker’s gatherings, at both “the Dark Tower” and her personal residence on Edgecombe Ave., were every bit the safe, incubating space that New York’s cabarets were.
Some of the most tantalizing details of Walker’s life are in dispute, and questions remain about how much of the public account of her life is rumor or hyperbole. Like the descriptions of the guests at those private parties, provided by Hartman, are breath-taking: “voyeurs, exhibitionists, the merely curious, queers, the polyamorous, and the catholic...lounged, drank, copulated,” she writes, adding, “People entered A’Lelia’s with a husband and exited with a wife.”
Walker herself cut a striking figure. The six-foot-tall beauty could be usually be found carrying a riding crop, according to rumor. She loved playing cards with her friends, drinking, rich food, and she had impeccable taste: in a home built for pleasure, writes Hartman, Walker entertained royalty both literal and figurative on Persian rugs, offset by silk and satin pillows and velvet and brocade fabrics.
As all great hosts must, Walker appeared to have a profound wit and ability to read the room. In one passage, Hartman writes:
A’Lelia served champagne and caviar to her black guests, while whites dined on pig feet, chitterlings, and bathtub gin, which was what they expected and wanted in Harlem, a delicious taste of the “other.”
It’s probably easy to write off this decadence as inconsequential, particularly in light of Walker’s substantial patronage of black literature and black art. After all, these parties were packed with the very glamorous, the very rich, or the very gifted (though by several accounts, Walker was open to people from all walks of life entering her doors). But the fact remains that Walker was committed to pleasure at a time when being free and whole and loved in a black body had dire consequences: in many cases, it was met with state violence in the form of policing or reformatories. For a Gladys Bentley or a Mabel Hampton, a prominent member of Lesbian Herstory Archives, the spaces Walker created gave them a chance to be as creative, riotous, stimulated, provocative, and free as they could ever be.
Walker’s life and contributions remain remarkable and salient in a world where black joy is black rebellion, and where people of all backgrounds refuse the truth that black history is queer history—and vice versa.
Thankfully, we can see this commitment to higher knowledge and pleasure carried through the work of activists and writers like adrienne maree brown, whose 2019 book Pleasure Activism highlighted the revolutionary possibilities of pursuing delights both corporeal and artistic.
Reading brown’s work, it’s impossible not to think of Walker, the Dark Tower, and the sensual, radical imaginations she fostered: “There is no way to repress pleasure,” brown writes, “and expect liberation, satisfaction, or joy.”