Margaret Walker Alexander

Women of courage : an exhibition of photographs based on the Black Women Oral History Project, by Judith Sedwick; sponsored by the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe College. [Cambridge, Mass.] : Radcliffe College, c1984. HOLLIS collection-level record: 007598802

African American, Federal Writers’ Project, Literature

Margaret Walker Alexander


Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander offers a narrative of slavery that presented accurate experiences and traditions of enslaved people and countered the dominating, speculative, and distorting stereotypes and representations of slavery promoted by historians like Ulrich Phillips.

Margaret Abigail Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1915. She was the eldest child of Rev. Sigismund C. Walker, a United Methodist minister from Jamaica, and Marion Dozier Walker, a music professor. Nurtured to be a writer, she developed a love of literature as an adolescent, learned to write daily, and listened intently to stories about her own family’s experiences of slavery in Georgia as told by her maternal grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier.

In 1925, Walker’s parents moved the family from Alabama to New Orleans so they could teach at New Orleans College (now Dillard University).  

After 16-year-old Walker had attended New Orleans College for two years, Langston Hughes met with her parents and encouraged them to send Walker to finish her English degree at Northwestern University in order to mitigate the impacts of segregation on her education. She subsequently earned her BA in 1935. In 1934, W.E.B. DuBois, editor of The Crisis (the NAACP’s magazine) published Walker’s first poem, “Daydreaming.”

In 1936, Walker worked for the Federal Writers Project (FWP) in Chicago and joined the Southside Writing Group, where she interviewed members if the Black community and met and built lifelong relationships with several other Chicago writers, many working in the FWP. Walker left Chicago to earn an MA in English (1940) in the Creative Writing Program at University of Iowa with her award- winning poem, “For My People,” which depicts the lifeways of ordinary Black Southerners with vivid imagery. After marrying Firnist James Alexander (1943) and teaching briefly at Livingstone College in North Carolina and at West Virginia State College, she joined the faculty of Jackson State College in Mississippi in 1949, where she taught for the rest of her career. 

While on leave from Jackson State University from 1962 to 1965, Walker Alexander returned to University of Iowa’s Writing Program to earn her PhD in English, with her acclaimed novel, Jubilee (1966), as her dissertation. In it, Walker Alexander transformed her maternal great grandmother’s oral family narratives about her life in slavery and Reconstruction, into historical fiction, embedding historically accurate Southern folk practices, language, music, beliefs, material culture, and traditional knowledge of African American daily life throughout. 

Walker Alexander published more than ten books, numerous poems, essays, letters, and speeches during her career. In 1968, she founded Jackson State’s Institute for the Study of the History, Life and Culture of Black People, which was later renamed in her honor. 

Among her most important works for folklore:

Jubilee (1966)

How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (1990)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)