As a professor of English at Jackson State University in 1968, Margaret Walker Alexander founded the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People.
Already an accomplished author, she stood at the forefront of a nascent Black Studies movement, but the Institute also reflected her immersion in 20th century African-American history and culture. During her lifetime, she had the unique opportunity both to be mentored by the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright and to be a mentor to writers such as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou.
Our Goal is to return her to the national consciousness, to lift her up to the place she deserves. – Dr. Robert Luckett
Born in Birmingham, Ala., on July 7, 1915, Walker was reading and writing by the time she was 5. When her family settled in New Orleans in 1925, her writing flourished after meeting Hughes, who encouraged her to leave the South to complete her education. Graduating from Northwestern University, her father’s alma mater, in 1935, Walker stayed in Chicago to work with the Federal Writers’ Project. There, she developed a close friendship with Wright and joined his Southside Writers Group.
In 1937, Walker wrote her seminal poem, For My People, for which she became the first black woman to receive the Yale University Younger Poets Award. By 1949, Walker and her husband, Firnist Alexander, had moved their three children to Mississippi so she could join the English Department at JSU. While at JSU, she completed her doctoral dissertation, a neo-slave narrative inspired by the memories of her maternal grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier. Published in 1966, Jubilee represented 30 years of research and reflection and has never since been out of print.
Alexander’s lasting achievement at JSU was the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People. As its director, she organized several conferences that were the first of their kind, including the 1971 National Evaluative Conference on Black Studies and the 1973 Phyllis Wheatley Poetry Festival. After 30 years of teaching, Walker retired as Professor Emerita and donated her literary and administrative papers to the Institute that she had founded and that was subsequently named in her honor.
The Margaret Walker Papers at JSU constitute one of the single largest collections of a modern black, female writer anywhere in the world. The Walker Center houses close to 40 significant manuscript collections such as the papers of former U.S. Secretary of Education Roderick Paige and a large oral history repository with more than 2,000 interviews. ONEJSU
Margaret Walker Centennial Events
Plans for “This is My Century: The Life and Legacy of Margaret Walker” were announced in December at Jackson State University’s Margaret Walker Center with a reading and book signing by Carolyn Brown, author of Song of My Life (University Press of Mississippi). Having authored a biography on Eudora Welty, the Jackson writer found it surprising that no such biography existed on Walker. Determined to change that, she wrote Song of My Life, discovering much about the friendship between the two along the way.
In February, high school students gathered on campus to participate in Poetry Out Loud, reciting Walker’s poetry. In April, the Toni Morrison Society’s Bench by the Road Project came to JSU in honor of Walker, with a keynote address by famed poet and social activist Nikky Finney, as part of the Margaret Walker annual Creative Arts Festival.
Also delivering a keynote address in April was Nikki Giovanni, world-renowned poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator. Her friendship with Walker spanned decades. A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker, authored by the two literary giants, was published in 1974.
Giovanni’s address came at the opening of Dr. Doris Derby’s documentary photography exhibit, The Black Arts Movement, Black Power and the Struggle for Civil Rights in America, currently on display in the Johnson Hall Art Gallery.
Derby was an instrumental part of the Mississippi civil rights movement. Her photography captured many aspects of the movement as it was unfolding along with key figures such as Walker, Myrlie Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer. Her work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution and several other venues across the United States.