Margaret Walker (1915-1998) was an acclaimed poet and novelist as well as a highly respected educator and literary critic whose experiences growing up in the South during the Jim Crow and civil rights eras is reflected in her works. She is most famous for her poetry collection For My People (1942) and her epic novel Jubilee (1966), which is based on her great-grandmother's life during slavery.
Margaret Abigail Walker was born in Birmingham on July 7, 1915, the oldest of four children of Sigismund Walker, an immigrant from Jamaica and Methodist minister, and Marion Dozier, a music teacher. Walker's maternal grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier, was one of the most important influences in Walker's life. While Sigismund and Marion worked, Elvira stayed home with the children and told them all about her own mother (Walker's great-grandmother), whose life would later become the historical basis for Jubilee. The family—including Walker's grandmother—moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1925, but Walker cited the accomplished and dedicated black women who taught her in elementary school in Birmingham as inspirations. Walker's parents encouraged their children to seek higher education, and in New Orleans, her love for reading and writing grew during her years at Gilbert Academy, a private college preparatory school for African Americans. Poet Langston Hughes spoke there and encouraged her writing; he also encouraged her parents to send her north for college. As a result, Walker attended Northwestern University, where she graduated with a B.A. in English in 1935. Although she had faced discrimination in the South, Walker was unprepared for the racism she experienced while at Northwestern. She has noted that her few friends were all African American and only one restaurant would serve her. Nevertheless, she still formed important relationships with her teachers there and continued her education in literature.
After college, Walker joined the Federal Writers Project, part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Project Administration, in Chicago. She formed a strong relationship with fellow southern African American writer Richard Wright—a man she much admired and about whom she would later write. Walker's time working with the FWP not only put her in contact with other important writers of the day but also helped her connect various social issues with the racism that she had experienced. Through her work in Chicago, she saw the oppression of other women, as well as other impoverished communities. She began working on many of the poems that appear in For My People during this period.
After her work with the FWP ended in 1939, Walker attended the University of Iowa, where she completed a master's degree in creative writing. For her thesis, Walker completed a version of For My People, which was published in 1942. The following year, she married Firnist James Alexander, with whom she would have four children. During this time, Walker taught at Livingstone College in North Carolina and then taught at West Virginia State College for the next year. In 1949, the new family moved back to the South when she took a job at historically black Jackson State College in Mississippi. Her 30-year tenure there would leave her frustrated and embittered because of constant encounters with gender discrimination. Walker remained a dedicated teacher and also focused on her new role as a mother during this time. In 1962, Walker returned to the University of Iowa to work on her doctorate in English, using the story of her great-grandmother to guide her dissertation research on southern slavery and its aftermath in Georgia and Alabama. Walker had been planning to tell the story of her great-grandmother since she first heard it; thus in 1966, when she published her dissertation, it was the result of nearly 50 years of thought and research. The 500-page epic, titled Jubilee, was hailed as a nuanced perspective of slavery told through the eyes of a female mixed-race slave named Vyry. Jubilee perhaps best connects Walker to an Alabama literary tradition, not only because her grandmother began telling her the stories in Birmingham but also because Vyry finally finds freedom when she travels to Montgomery to settle her family.
After completing her doctorate, Walker returned to Jackson State College, where she was later granted the title of Professor
Emeritus. In 1968, she founded the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People (renamed in 1989
the Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center). She died at her daughter's home in Chicago on November 30, 1998,
from breast cancer at the age of 83. She is buried in Garden Memorial Park in Jackson, Mississippi.
Works By Margaret Walker
For My People (poems) (1942)
The Ballad of the Free (poems) (1966)
Jubilee (novel) (1966)
Prophets for a New Day (poems) (1970)
October Journey (poems) (1973)
A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Margaret Walker and Nikki Giovanni (1974)
For Farish Street Green, February 27, 1986 (1986)
Richard Wright, Daemonic Geniu s: A Portrait of the Man, a Critical Look at His Work (1988)
This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (1989)
How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (1990)
On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker, 1932-1992 (1997)
Graham, Maryemma, ed. Conversations with Margaret Walker. Oxford: University of Mississippi Press, 2002.
Columbus State University
Published August 31, 2009
Last updated June 23, 2011