help_outline Skip to main content

News / Articles

Aida Overton Walker

Kathryn S Gardiner  | Published on 1/10/2020

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights



Al Jolson’s performance in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer recorded for posterity what had been a popular stage gimmick since the 1800s: white actors with their faces darkened by makeup portraying African-Americans, often as stupid, lazy buffoons. On the rare occasion that theaters did employ black actors, they were relegated to the chorus and background.

 

It was in this era that Aida Overton Walker became a star, taking to the stage with beauty, poise, talent, and dignity. 

 

Aida was born in Richmond, Va., on Feb. 14, 1880, and soon after, her family relocated to New York City. There, she received not only an education, but also musical training. In 1895, at age 15, she joined a black touring group called “The Octoroons,” and soon began performing in the chorus of “Black Patti’s Troubadours.” 

It was in these years of singing and touring that Aida met George Walker, a vaudeville performer who would become her husband in 1899, and his partner Bert Williams. George and Bert were making a name for themselves as black performers of comedy and musicals. Aida’s star joined theirs on the national stage in 1900 when she appeared in the show Sons of Ham with the song “Miss Hannah from Savannah.”


Library of Congress
LC-USZ62-117539




What followed was nearly a decade of prosperity and popularity for Aida, George, and Bert. The three of them staged musicals and vaudeville shows, always highlighting black actors, singers, and dancers, as well as authentic and heartfelt black stories and music. Praised by critics, they were financially successful at a time when demeaning blackface minstrel shows otherwise ruled the scene.

 

In a 1905 article in The Colored American Magazine, Aida is quoted as saying, “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."

 

George fell ill in 1908 and Aida left the stage for a few years to care for him. She returned briefly in 1910 as a solo act, and also appeared in drag, taking over her husband’s role in Bandanna Land.

 

George died in 1911. The following year, Aida took her solo performance on tour for 16 months before returning to New York City where she took on the role of Salome at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre on Broadway. The startling success of this show lead to requests for more, and Aida worked steadily until her sudden and unexpected death from kidney failure at age 34. 

 

The fight for equal rights has many battlefields. Though her life was short and she did not march in the streets or protest Congress, Aida’s contribution to the advancement of her race and gender should not be undervalued.

 

Frederick Douglass described blackface as, “...the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.” Blackface was a parody of blackness, performed by white people for white people, allowing them to assert their superiority and therefore justify their racism, both in practice and in thought. 

 

Aida’s talent and grace, paired with her unashamed blackness, challenged the discriminatory foundations of an entire generation of theater.