A Woman to Know: Aida Overton Walker

I venture to think and dare to state that our profession does more toward the alleviation of color prejudice than any other profession among colored people. — Aida Overton Walker

I venture to think and dare to state that our profession does more toward the alleviation of color prejudice than any other profession among colored people. — Aida Overton Walker

(image via Library of Congress)

In the late 1880s, Aida ruled the vaudeville stage. She and her husband, fellow performer George Walker, appeared in shows around the United States, leading an all-black cast of vaudevillians. Aida choreographed the dances and starred as “Miss Hannah from Savannah” and other prominent lead parts.

In 1903, in their tour of Europe, Aida finally performed at Buckingham Palace. She killed it. Suddenly, she was an international, in-demand star, commanding huge audiences on both continents. She talked often of how her work raised visibility of black talent, and later, dancers like Josephine Baker and Florence Mills would say Aida’s work inspired them to envision careers on the stage.

But in 1908, Aida’s life — and career — took a sudden turn. When George’s health suddenly declined, Aida had to find a way to keep their act going. She continued performing the duo’s dances, dressing up in her husband’s clothes to play his own parts. In 1912, at the height of Europe’s “Salomania,” she choreographed and performed her own Salome dance at the Victoria Theatre. The performance cemented her status as an international star; but her husband died that same year.

After George’s death, Aida continued performing, touring with her show and reprising musicals she made famous with her husband. But just three years after George’s death, Aida — then known as “The Queen of the Cakewalk,” “The Black Venus” and the “Salome of the Stage” — took ill herself. She died at just 34 years old.

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