Margaret Walker was born and spent much of her early life in Birmingham, Ala. When she was ten, the family moved to New Orleans where both her parents had teaching jobs. Her grandmother lived with the family and entertained the children with family stories of life under slavery. Walker’s parents introduced her to poetry and the classics, and she began writing poetry and prose at age eleven. Walker graduated from Gilbert Academy at age fourteen and began attending college at New Orleans University (now Dillard University). After two years, she transferred to Northwestern University and graduated with an AB in English in 1935. Walker was then hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers Project in Chicago. She became friends with Richard Wright, and the two helped each other with their writing projects. During this period, some of her poems were published in The Crisis and in Poetry magazine. In 1939, Walker enrolled in graduate school at the University of Iowa, earning an MA in 1940. Her thesis was a collection of poems later published as For My People.
Walker taught for several years at Livingstone College in North Carolina and at West Virginia State College, Institute (now West Virginia State University). In 1949, she began teaching at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University) in Mississippi. In 1962, Walker took time off to pursue a PhD at the University of Iowa. Her dissertation was a draft of Jubilee, a novel based on her grandmother’s stories. After its publication in 1966, Walker returned to Jackson State where in 1968 she established the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People (renamed in 1989 the Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center). In the last three decades of her life, Walker published three books of poetry, two collections of essays, and a controversial biography of Richard Wright. While she was working on Jubilee, Walker received Rosenwald and Ford Fellowships to do research. Later in her career, she held National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts senior fellowships and a Yaddo residency.
Margaret Walker's work focuses on the lives of black Americans and is strongly influenced by black folklore and stories from the Bible. Walker's novel Jubilee is a Civil War story told from a black perspective; her poems feature portraits of black poets, leaders, and community figures; and her nonfiction examines black authors and describes her experiences as a twentieth-century American black woman.
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Photo courtesy of the Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center, Archives and Records Division, Margaret Walker Alexander Personal Papers, Jackson State University, Jackson, Miss.
Last updated on Oct 13, 2009.