A Woman to Know: A'Lelia Walker

Madame Walker had been civic-minded, donating thousands of dollars to charity. A'Lelia used most of her inheritance to throw lavish parties. — historian Eric Garber

(image via Yale University)


Madame C.J. Walker built a world-famous cosmetics company, becoming the first black woman billionaire in the United States. Her hair products and makeup created a fortune. When she died in 1919, her daughter A'Lelia knew exactly what she wanted to do with the money: she wanted to throw a huge party.

And because this was the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance, the party didn't stop. A'Lelia's townhouse in Harlem hosted fabulous Renaissance figures like Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and Countee Cullen. Hughes himself wrote that A'Lelia's guests lists "would turn any Nordic social climber green with envy." She hosted weekly salons in "The Dark Tower," the third floor of her palatial home.

But A'Lelia was more than just a Jazz Age party girl. Her parties weren't just glamorous and star-filled -- most importantly, her house became a safe space for queer black artists. They turned to A'Lelia's house when they needed to meet other men, other women or other LGBTQ makers. As Lillian Feldman wrote, "A'Lelia Walker probably had much to do with the manifest acceptance of bisexuality among the upper class in Harlem."

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