Whenever I look at the great singer, dancer, actress and producer Aida Overton Walker, I think about how awesome it would be to see someone like Anika Noni Rose or Audra McDonald bring her to life on the stage. Born on Valentine’s Day in 1880 in New York City (some accounts say Richmond, VA, but my source is “Black Women in America,” edited by the foremost historian of black women, Darlene Clark Hine. Ms. Overton Walker changed her name from “Ada” to “Aida” late in her short but storied career, which began in the chorus of Black Patti’s Troubadours, the troupe founded by the one of the first black opera singers, Sissieretta Jones. She was best known for her work with the comedian and singer Bert Williams and her husband George Walker and, upon joining their Williams & Walker act around 1899, she choreographed all of their routines. She won critical acclaim for her solo performances, especially in the 1902 musical “In Dahomey” and sang three of the shows most popular tunes including “Leader of the Colored Aristocracy,” a song written by James Weldon Johnson (one of her most ardent admirers) and the brilliant composer and violinist, Will Marion Cook, expressed the desire of her character’s (Rosetta Lightfoot) desire for more opportunities in life. Ms. Overton Walker is also credited with popularizing the cakewalk, the 19th century dance craze that originated on slave plantations. Keenly aware about stereotypes and how they affected black people, on and offstage addressed members of the black elite who took issue with blacks in show business in a searing 1905 essay for the Colored American entitled “Colored Men and Women on the Stage.” In the essay, she wrote, “Some of our so-called society people regard the Stage as a place to be ashamed of…. In this age we are all fighting the one problem—that is the color problem! 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. The fact of the matter is this, that we come in contact with more white people in a week than other professional colored people in a year and more than some meet in a whole decade.” When her husband became ill around 1908, Ms. Overton Walker donned his costume and performed his routines along with her own until after his death in 1911. Some accounts of her life incorrectly report a decline in her career after the death of Mr. Walker, however, in 1912, she had great success touring the United States in a solo show as “Salome.” The photo here is Ms. Overton Walker in character as Salome, from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Tragically, amidst her very successful career, Aida Overton Walker died at the age of 34 on October 11, 1914, after a brief illness.
I left quite a bit out of this lengthy post, but Ms. Overton Walker is featured prominently in my book, Vintage Black Glamour, which will be published in Spring 2014 by Rocket 88 Books. Please visit the book site and register for updates and pre-order information. http://vintageblackglamourbook.com/