Langston Hughes called her “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.” She stood almost six feet tall and wore a turban. There is no proof of her being bisexual or in a relationship with a woman, but she was a supporter of gay, queer Black Harlem.
A’Lelia Walker was the daughter of the self-made millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker, the inventor of hair-straightening products for Black women. Born Lelia McWilliams, the A was added to her name after her mother’s death.
As her mother traveled the world promoting her products, A’Lelia played a leading role in the business. Then, as the business continued to expand, A’Lelia created a space for it in Harlem.
Even though she was a businesswoman during the Harlem Renaissance, she became known for her lavish gay parties at two properties she owned. One of the party spots was a Manhattan apartment known as “The Dark Tower.” It was supposed to be a safe space and literary salon for artists, musicians, and writers of Harlem to create.
Her guests included Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and many other Harlem Renaissance artists.
These parties were her chance to show off her wealth. However, some have said the parties were for her to “show off her Blackness to whites. Chitterlings and bootleg liquor were on the menu for her white guests, while her Black guests were served caviar and champagne in a separate setting.
Mabel Hampton, a lesbian and dancer, witnessed what happened at these parties. She stated the parties were like orgies where some people wore clothes while others did not. She said, “people would hug and kiss and do anything they wanted to do. Some came to watch; some came to play. You had to be cute and well dressed to get in.”
Her parties allowed sexual freedom to her guests.
A’Lelia had been married three times. Her sexuality was never confirmed. She was always surrounded by attractive women who had a crush on her.
Losing her inheritance and fortune during the Great Depression, A’Lelia was forced to sell personal items and one of the properties she owned. At the age of forty-six, she passed from a cerebral hemorrhage while attending a friend’s birthday party. Approximately 11,000 people filed past her casket, while 1,000 people attended the invitation-only funeral where Langston Hughes read a poem. Mary McLeod Bethune gave the eulogy, and Adam Clayton Powell presided over the service. The funeral was a mirror of her extravagant parties. Her death was a considerable loss to Harlem and those who loved her.
Click on the link below to hear the interview of Mabel Hampton, the dancer who attended one of A’Lelia’s lavish parties.
She did not die at home
In her own bed at night
She died where laughter was,
And music, and gay delight
She died as she has lived
With no wearying pain
Binding her to life
Like a hateful chain;
So, all who love laughter
And joy and light,
Let your prayers be as roses
For this queen of the night
Let your prayers be as roses
And your songs be as sun
To kiss the last road
Of this lovely one
For now – all tomorrow
And eternity’s great years
She shall live in her laughter
And not need our tears