Margaret Alexander Walker was a novelist, scholar, poet and teacher who was best known for her 1963 Civil War novel “Jubilee” which has been dubbed the first truly historical black American novel. She was also famous for her powerful collection of poetry about racial affirmation.
Immersed in 20th Century African-American history, she pioneered an Institute for the Study of History, Life, and Culture of Black People Jackson State College (renamed the Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center).
Walker was born on July 7th, 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama, and began her poetry at age 15, when she entered college. She received her advanced education from Northwestern University in 1935 and from the University of Iowa in 1940, with the former BA and later MA.
After writing her BA, in 1936, she became a member of the Federal Writers’ Project in Chicago, where she met Richard Wright and joined his South Side Writers Group.
In 1941, Walker was crowned “the Yale Younger Poets Prize” for her debut collection “For My People”, making her the first African American poet to receive the award. Her other collections include “This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems” (University of Georgia Press, 1989), “October Journey” (Broadside Press, 1973), and “Prophets for a New Day” (Broadside Press, 1970).
Married in 1943 to Firnist Alexander, an interior designer, and decorator. Both had four children. Six years later the couple moved to Mississippi, where she joined the faculty at Jackson State College. Thereafter, she advanced her studies at the University of Iowa for her Ph.D. in 1965.
The following year, while she was a professor of English at Jackson State University, she published her dissertation “Jubilee” as a novel. Jubilee is a neo-slave narrative focused on the collected memories of the author’s maternal grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier.
Walker was a mentee of the likes of Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright and also mentored writers such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou.
While being the director of the institute, she organized the 1971 National Evaluative Conference on Black Studies and the 1973 Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival.
She retired from teaching after 30 years of serving. Upon retiring she published “Being Female, Black, and Free”, a collection of personal essays, and Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius, a work of nonfiction which was inspired by her friendship with Wright.
Years passed, she was diagnosed with cancer and later died on November 30th, 1998 in Jackson, Mississippi.
Presently, the Margaret Walker Papers at JSU consist of the single largest collections of a modern black, female writer globally. The Margaret Walker Center is home to 40 important manuscript collections such as the papers of former U.S. Secretary of Education, Roderick Paige, and a large oral history repository with more than 2,000 interviews.
During her lifetime, Margaret Alexander Walker had six honorary degrees, a Rosenwald Fellowship (1944),;a Ford Fellowship (1953), a Fulbright Fellowship to Norway (1971); a senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1972); the Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Arts, presented by William Winter, then governor of Mississippi (1992); and the Living Legacy Award, given by the Carter administration, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the College Language Association (1992).
Precisely on October 17th, 1998, at the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers’ Conference at Chicago State University, she was inducted into the African American Literary Hall of Fame. Arguably, she’s one of the most formidable literary voices of the 20th century and one of the foremost transcribers of African American heritage.