Lelia (A'Lelia Walker) McWilliams

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Lelia (A'Lelia Walker) McWilliams

Birthplace: Vicksburg, MS, United States
Death: August 17, 1931 (46)
Long Branch, Monmouth County, NJ, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Moses McWilliams and Madam C. J. Walker
Wife of James Arthur Kennedy
Ex-wife of Wiley M. Wilson and Joseph Robinson

Occupation: Inventor, Entrepreneur
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Lelia (A'Lelia Walker) McWilliams

A'Lelia McWilliams Walker


Corporate Executive & Arts Supporter

Exerpted from: http://www.nathanielturner.com/aleliawalker.htm

Lelia McWilliams (1885-1931)-- born in Vickburg, Mississippi -- was a patron to the so-called "black literati" of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. She was the only child of Madam C. J. Walker, who abandoned by Lelia father's became a washerwoman but later an inventor and famously wealthy as result of her hair-care business.

When her mother died in 1919, Walker inherited the business and the lavish family estate, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington, New York. She hosted parties in her "Dark Tower" and entertained such writers as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, and other writers.

Her regal African beauty, lavish clothing, and glamorous lifestyle, inspired singers, poets, and sculptors. Langston Hughes called her the "joy goddess of Harlem's 1920's"; Zora Neale Hurston outlined a play about her and her mother; and Carl Van Vechten based his Nigger Heaven character, Adora Boniface, on her.

Her grandparents were former slaves who were forced into sharecropping. Her father was Moses McWilliams. She married a man named Robinson (divorced, 1914); married Wiley Wilson, (a doctor), 1919 (marriage ended); married James Arthur Kennedy (a doctor), early 1920s (divorced, 1931). In 1912 she adopted named Mae Bryant Perry

Walker grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and attended Knoxville College in Tennessee before going to work for her mother, Madame Walker. She helped her mother found The Mme. C. J. Walker Mfg. Co. in 1905. From 1908 to 1914 she managed the Pittsburgh branch of her mother's hair-care product empire and also oversaw Lelia College, a school of cosmetology run by the company and became manager of the Walker College of Hair Culture, New York City and opened its New York office and beauty salon in 1913. Upon Madam Walker's death in 1919, A'Lelia Walker became president of the company.

Her interest in Africa led her in 1922 to become one of the only westerners to visit Ethiopian Empress Waizeru Zauditu. She also too a trip to South America. Some upperclass Harlemites snubbed her for being the daughter of a washerwoman, though Madame Walker was the country's first female self-made American millionaire. Privately, elitist lighter-skinned blacks dismissed Walker as "the Mahogany Millionairess." In addition, Walker was also quite tolerant of gays within her society. Grace Nail Johnson, the wife of novelist James Weldon Johnson and grand dame of Harlem society, was one of those who were pleased that she never crossed the threshold of Walker's residences nor The Dark Tower.

As the decade of the 20s ended A'Lelia, as she came to name herself, the joy of life and alcohol began to take its toll on her six-foot frame. The parties came to an end with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. The dark Tower was close in 1930. Antiques and luxuries were auctioned. On August 16, 1931, in the early morning after hosting a birthday party for a friend A'Lelia Walker expired. Hers was a memorable funeral.

Harlem turned out for Walker's funeral. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. eulogized her; college founder Mary McLeod Bethune spoke of the legacy left by both Walker and her mother, and Langston Hughes contributed a poem, "To A'Lelia," which read, in part: "So all who love laughter/And joy and light,/Let your prayers be as roses/For this queen of the night."

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Lelia (A'Lelia Walker) McWilliams's Timeline

June 6, 1885
Vicksburg, MS, United States
August 17, 1931
Age 46
Long Branch, Monmouth County, NJ, United States