The Dark Tower: Where Our Radical Black Foremothers Made A Room Of Their Own
Jamia Wilson, the publisher of the Feminist Press, reflects on the legacy of Zora Neale Hurston, A’Lelia Walker and The Dark Tower: a place where our radical Black literary foremothers created a lavish room of their own.
In 1929, the author Zora Neale Hurston wrote a letter to her then-friend and literary collaborator, Langston Hughes, proposing an artistic oasis of sorts: a colony for Black creatives on the Indian River in southeastern Florida. The author had a clear vision, but she needed financial support to make it a reality.
"I'm not asking you in any snide way to help on the [$4000 (£3,093.44)] payment, I really want your opinion. That's all. I think Aleilia (sic) Walker might like the idea, don't you?”
It makes sense that someone like Hurston, flush with talent but tight on cash, would seek out A'Lelia Walker’s help. Standing nearly six feet tall, clad in a uniform of sable coats and jewel-encrusted turbans, Walker — the woman who Langston Hughes called “the joy goddess of Harlem” — was the grand doyenne and a key financier of the Harlem artistic salon scene. It’s likely that Hurston’s vision for a Southern sanctuary for Black artists was inspired by The Dark Tower, Walker’s literary salon and an urban utopia for creators, benefactors, performers, and intellectuals to connect.
A century before #BlackTwitter created a decade-defining space where cultural discourse could ignite real social change, the conversations that emerged at Black-women-led literary salons like A’Lelia Walker’s The Dark Tower sparked a zeitgeist. It would come to be defined as the Harlem Renaissance, the revolutionary arts and cultural movement that swiftly become political. It paved the way for the Black women who stand at the forefront of contemporary American politics and pop culture today. There is a direct line from A’Lelia Walker’s philanthropic lineage to Shonda Rhimes’ domination of television, Janet Mock’s groundbreaking literary and film activism, and Rihanna’s fierce authenticity and radical generosity.
A century before #BlackTwitter created a decade-defining space where cultural discourse could ignite real social change, the conversations that emerged at Black-women-led literary salons like A’Lelia Walker’s The Dark Tower sparked a zeitgeist.
When I read Hurston’s letter now, 90 years later, it feels eerily familiar. As an author and the first woman of colour to serve as executive director and publisher of the longest-running feminist book publisher in the world, The Feminist Press, part of my job includes sending and receiving emails — many like Hurston’s letter — to garner support for insurgent marginalized voices to thrive. In a landscape where only a fraction of this support going to institutions that serve women of colour media leaders, makers, and artists, Hurston’s letter — and Walker’s patronage — both feel especially timely.
So I find myself now, maybe more than ever, focused on the subject of cultural inheritance while exploring the legacy of radical Black literary foremothers and stewards of women’s creativity.
Walker was born in 1885 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the daughter of the first self-made woman millionaire and one of the first Black millionaires, Madame CJ Walker, the first free-born child of six, who later ascended from a washerwoman to found a hair care empire.
Mother and daughter ran the business together, sparing no expense in the building and furnishing of a double townhome in Harlem, from which they operated their exclusive salon on the first floor. When Madam CJ died in 1919, Lelia took over the business — and the direction of her own life. She added the A and apostrophe to her name (her given name was Lelia) and devoted her fortune and passion to the vibrant artistic scene of Harlem in the 1920s.
The lavish parties Walker threw in the four-story double townhome were legendary. Within the gold-coloured walls of Walker’s velvet-appointed home, no detail was overlooked, from the sky-blue Victrola record player to the rose-coloured piano and the napkins inscribed with the name of her greatest passion — the premier artistic salon she established and hosted, christened The Dark Tower after a poem by Countee Cullen.
Amid the grandeur of A’Leila’s majestic salon, Black and queer guests relished the opportunity to express their true selves in a safe space. Mabel Hampton, a former Harlem Renaissance dancer, and one of the pioneering members of NYC’s Herstory Archives, the world’s largest collection of materials by and about lesbians, spoke about the fetes in 1983, recalling, “There was men and women, women and women, and men and men, and everyone did whatever they wanted to do.”
In his memoir The Dark Sea, Langston Hughes wrote that the salon was “filled with guests whose names would turn any Nordic social climber green with envy.” Walker’s home was the kind of place where an acclaimed scholar like W.E.B. DuBois could cut loose with jazz musicians, dancers like Mabel Hampton, French and Russian aristocrats, stock exchangers, and other members of the New York elite. On the guest list: actor and activist Paul Robeson, the outspoken cabaret dancer Florence Mills, prolific queer singer and Showboat star Alberta Hunter, and, of course, Zora Neale Hurston, herself.
Hurston was born in 1891 in Alabama and raised in Florida. She was so inspired by the scene Walker created that she sketched out a play about A’Lelia and her businesswoman mother. And while she and Walker lived very different lives, they shared an important trait: radiant charisma.
“When Zora was there, she was the party,” recalled Sterling Brown, Hurston’s Harlem Renaissance literary counterpart reminisced when describing her spirit, vivacity, and complex but endearing persona. It’s a bold statement considering how intense Walker's parties already were. As Langston Hughes recalled, they “were as crowded as the New York subway at the rush hour — entrance, lobby, steps, hallway, and apartment a milling crush of guests, with everybody seeming to enjoy the crowding.”
Hurston was faced with the reality of requiring patronage to make her art, while possessing an irreverence that had her constantly thumbing her nose at elites and skin-colour privilege within the Black community and in white spaces. Her biographer Valerie Boyd tells a story of one “ritzy interracial party in New York, where Zora had angered some of her fellow New Negroes by going straight for the watermelon. They viewed its inclusion on the buffet as a test of sorts, almost an insult, and had collectively vowed to abstain from the forbidden fruit.
'And leave all this good watermelon for the white folks?!’ Zora dissented.”
Walker possessed a similar subversive vivacity. At her salons, it’s said, white guests were served chitterlings and bathtub gin while Black guests dined on champagne and caviar. The writer Osbert Sitwell recalls meeting an intellectual likely to be W.E.B. Dubois who was in the company of the thrice-married A’Lelia. He was taken aback when Walker casually removed her shoes while the part was in full swing, and compared the pain of new footwear to the pain of new husbands.
Hurston and Walker were allies in a world where the Black cultural gatekeepers were almost exclusively men. For some, Walker was dismissed as the “Mahogany Millionairess,” her fetes reduced to the whims of a bored heiress with no mind for business. Hurston’s literary contemporaries, including Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, were dismissive of the writer’s work. Even Langston Hughes, who was a direct recipient of Walker’s financial patronage and had been best friends with Hurston at one point, observed disdainfully, “Girls are funny creatures.”
So is it any wonder that both women have been undermined by history? A’Lelia Walker’s memory has been misconstrued by many. Those who simplistically dismiss her as a party girl, or a self-seeker whose riches were made from selling hair straighteners to Black women, are discounting the foundation she built by affording artists and intellectuals space to connect with each other and patrons while freely expressing themselves.
To dismiss the pivotal role Walker played in both Black and queer history at The Dark Tower is to do a grave disservice to an exceptional woman living in tumultuous times.
She organised her celebrations in the aftermath of African-American troops returning from World War One to encounter amplified hostility in the South which led to a Great Migration to northern cities in search of jobs and freedom. Born out of Walker’s desire to gather artists and intellectuals and give back to her community, this celebratory space also fostered joyful resistance and a sense of sanctuary from racial terror in the form of economic injustice, and riots springing up in multiple cities spurred by widespread lynchings and racial aggression.
The Feminist Press’s founders committed themselves to uplifting forgotten women’s and feminist voices — a cause reflected in our decision to reissue some of our most iconic texts in 2020. Most personally impactful to me is I Love Myself When I Am Laughing...And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, edited by Alice Walker. First published by the Feminist Press in 1979, it’s a tribute to Hurston, the most prolific Black woman writer of her time, who by the time of its initial publication, had fallen into obscurity.
It was Alice Walker, one of Hurston's literary descendants who rediscovered Hurston’s unmarked grave and anthologized her work in this collection, Hurston represents both the enduring importance of elevating “lost” women’s stories, and the labours of love involved in preventing their erasure. Hurston’s audacious writing could have faded deeper into the unknown without Walker’s daring determination to unearth the truth, centre Hurston’s contributions, and engage a new generation with her inimitable voice that continues to resonate today.
Before Alice Walker restored Huston's legacy as the “patron saint of Black women writers,” Hurston was known as a charming but polarizing maverick within her cultural cadre, until 1948 when she was arrested in New York City and falsely charged with molesting a 10-year-old boy. While the case was dropped after Hurston proved that she was out of the country during the purported assault, public opinion of Hurston nosedived, and she struggled to find work afterwards. When she passed away, it was with little fanfare.
Hurston embodied the multidimensional complexity of the Black women characters she wrote into the world. Rejecting the confines of expected affiliations and respectability politics, she was unafraid to stand alone in her opinions.
Independent historian Dr. Cynthia Greenlee noted this friction and its impact on the Harlem Renaissance salon scene and how Hurston might have fared in our current cultural landscape. “Today she may have been a social media crusader or trolled incessantly, but I think her core audience would have valued her because they potentially would have had more access to her work than her fading into obscurity due to lack of relationships binding her to the literary circles in New York City.”
Similarly, Greenlee surmised that “History, the literary establishment (even in Black communities), and male contemporaries are rarely kind to women who don’t ask for permission to create and be brash in their self-belief.” Recognising the thread between the past and the present, I wondered if the diminishing profile of Hurston’s work in the last years of her life in part persisted because she got #canceled for taking on male authority. What would her final years of life and memory look like if she’d had continued access to Black-women led community spaces like the Dark Tower?
As the dawning of the Great Depression loomed over the nation, the Dark Tower became harder to sustain. After running the Dark Tower as a membership-club on the floor of her 136th Street townhome for a dollar per year, Walker was forced to lease the majestic townhome to the city to utilize as a health centre. The Dark Tower closed its gilded doors in November 1928, and the frequency of Walker’s parties dwindled after the stock market crashed in 1929, two years prior to her death.
Langston Hughes lamented his friend A’Lelia’s passing and the end of the Dark Tower she cultivated. In his memoir, he wrote, “That was really the end of the gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem, the period that had begun to reach its end when the crash came in 1929 and the white people had much less money to spend on themselves, and practically none to spend on Negroes, for the depression brought everybody down a peg or two. And the Negroes had but few pegs to fall.”
“History, the literary establishment (even in Black communities), and male contemporaries are rarely kind to women who don’t ask for permission to create and be brash in their self-belief.”
A’Lelia Walker’s namesake and great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles continues to honour her memory with the curation of a rich archive. When I spoke with Bundles, she made a keen observation that has stuck with me: the idea of having a "salon of one's own" was as essential to the Harlem Renaissance as Virginia Woolf's notion that a "room of one's own" was necessary to write fiction. Walker and Woolf were contemporaries during a time when women were insisting on more independence. And as Bundles pointed out to me, Woolf's actual quote was “A woman must have money and a room of her own."
Of Walker’s death on August 6th, 1931, Bundles writes, “After a day of champagne, lobster, and laughter with friends, A’Lelia Walker died in a cottage near the beach in Long Branch, New Jersey. Her funeral — with music, poetry and great oratory — was as grand as her Harlem Renaissance era parties.”
Walker was only 46 years old when she died, but she knew, even if others didn’t, that she was an essential part of history.
“Having no talent or gift, but a love and keen appreciation for art, The Dark Tower was my contribution,” she wrote.
I’ll never forget when my late mother Dr. Willa Alfreda Campbell-Wilson first handed me her original Feminist Press edition of I Love Myself… from her enormous mahogany bookshelf over 20 years ago. After she passed on Christmas Day last year, I honoured her life by contributing to our crowdfunded campaign to bring Zora’s book back with a new editor’s note from Alice Walker. Every time I open my already dog-eared copy of the text I see a note in memory of the woman who introduced me to Zora and taught me that supporting women writers and lifting up Black women’s work and words is a part of my calling.
My mother told me that there is nothing about us without us. And I aim to pass that on.