A writer whose accomplishments exceed her reputation, Margaret Walker made significant contributions to American literature and to the study of African-American culture and history. Throughout her long career as a writer, educator, and scholar, Walker received many awards and accolades for her creative and critical writing, including the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and numerous honorary degrees. Her poetry and fiction influenced and inspired such writers as Alice Walker and Nikki Giovanni.
Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of a Methodist minister and a music teacher. The family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, when both her parents joined the faculty of New Orleans University, now known as Dillard University. Walker’s mother and father encouraged her to keep a journal and to read widely in both European literary classics and contemporary American literature. Her reading included the work of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and other Harlem Renaissance writers flourishing at the time.
As a young woman, Walker had the opportunity to meet Langston Hughes when he visited New Orleans on a reading tour. Hughes recognized her talent and encouraged Walker, who was enrolled at the time in New Orleans University, to seek greater educational opportunities at a northern university. On his advice, Walker went to Chicago to study at Northwestern University. After graduation, she worked with the Works Progress Administration Writer’s Project where she met other Chicago writers, including Richard Wright, who would later write Native Son.
In the 1930s, Walker went to graduate school at the University of Iowa where she completed her first collection of poems. After entering the manuscript in the Yale Younger Poets competition twice, she submitted the collection a third time and won; Stephen Vincent Benét selected her book, For My People (1942), for publication by Yale University Press. Though some were surprised that the prestigious award should go to a young, African-American woman (the New York Times headline announcing the award read “Negro Girl Wins Yale Poetry Prize”1 ), Benét praised the poems. “They are set for voice and the blues,” he wrote, “they could be sung as easily as spoken, and first and last, they are a part of the earth.”2
In addition to poetry, Walker wrote a novel, Jubilee. Called “The reverse side of Gone with the Wind,”3 Jubilee is based on Walker’s great grandmother’s life. The story follows a slave girl from her childhood on a southern plantation, through the Civil War, to her life as a free woman during Reconstruction. Jubilee was praised for its historical accuracy as well as its high literary quality. Walker presents such a carefully researched and historically accurate picture of the lives of southern slaves that the novel has been taught in American history classes.
Because of her commitment to the understanding and study of African-American history and culture, Walker founded the Institute for the Study of Black History, Life and Culture of Black People. The institute is located at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi, where Walker was on the faculty from 1949 until her retirement in the 1970s. Walker served as director of the Institute and donated her own archive there to create the Margaret Walker Alexander National Resource Center.