(Blogger’s note: My grandmother was a leader in Savannah’s African-American community, especially at Second African Baptist Church, where members of the Oper Walker Guild continue to carry on her legacy 47 years after she passed away. I was asked to address the Guild’s 52nd anniversary program to offer reflections about my grandmother, and to refresh the memory of people who barely remember her.
(I hope my presentation inspires those who carry on her legacy to continue to serve the church and the community.)
I grew up in Second African Baptist Church – I was baptized here, and I learned my Easter speeches and Christmas recitations here. This church gave me some of my early childhood friendships.
I learned my first Bible stories downstairs in Sunday School. One of my fondest memories was flipping the benches downstairs after Sunday School class so we would all face the front of the room at the end of our lessons. I knew I was a big girl when I was one of those asked to flip those benches. In 1975, Rev. Edgar P. Quarterman performed my marriage ceremony with Willie Lloyd, to whom I have been married for 43 years.
I remember sitting in this church alongside my grandmother, Oper Walker, and my godmother, Vivian Walker. My godmother kept me supplied — and quiet — with her collection of peppermint candies, and she generously shared it with other children around us. The choir was up there next to the pipe organ, and I can still feel and hear the sounds of the organ’s music and the bells and choir voices.
I am elated that the church is still celebrating my grandmother’s legacy of faith, fellowship and service through the Oper Walker Guild. She would be so proud to know that her leadership and service to this church lives on through members more than four decades after her passing in 1971.
I was thinking of some key words to help me describe my grandmother. I share some of those key words with you today.
- A loving family matriarch — mother of four, grandmother of five.
- Disciplinarian (she meted out punishment when needed, and she forced me to go outside and pull off tiny branches from the bushes — to make switches for my spankings)
- Community servant (through the church and other organizations to which she belonged, including the local Spelman College alumnae group)
- Socialite (she was a member of garden clubs and bridge clubs)
- Neighborhood leader (the 41stStreet Community Club was founded on her front porch)
- Business woman (she was president of her own school of beauty culture)
- Seamstress (she made all of her own clothes and mine, too)
- And a supporter of educational values (she pushed children in the church and in the community to be good students and get as much education as possible)
My grandfather, James Madison Walker, came to Savannah alone (due to a job transfer with Atlanta Life Insurance, Co.) and then he moved the family to Savannah in 1929; my grandmother was pregnant with their last child — my mother, Gloria, who was born in the house where the family settled on West 41stStreet.
The Walker family joined Second Baptist, and they got busy serving the church and the community.
My grandfather became a deacon at Second Baptist and he also served as superintendent of the Sunday school. He was also active with the Savannah Branch of the NAACP.
My Aunt Catherine played piano for the Sunday school. Many, many years later, after my mother retired from her career (living in New Jersey, New York, Dallas and San Francisco) and returned to Savannah, she reconnected with Second Baptist and she joined the Oper Walker Guild. My two uncles – James, Jr., who was a distinguished chauffeur in New York City, and Watson, who was a surgeon in Columbus, Ohio, continued to support their mother and this church. Whenever there was a fund-raising drive for things like new carpet, painting, air conditioning, new windows – things like that — she would reach out to them to send money back to Second Baptist.
At Second Baptist, my grandmother was active with the Trojans Club, a group that would take on projects to improve certain parts of the church. One of the projects I remember was to renovate a room downstairs into a lounge. The Trojans took everything out of the room and had the walls painted and then brought in new carpeting and furniture. My grandmother encouraged me to support the Trojans effort by taking on a project of my own. I was interested in paint by number projects at the time and I remember making a couple of pictures that we framed and hung in that room downstairs.
My grandmother was a professional woman, she established Boyce’s School of Beauty Culture on West Broad Street. Generations of women who became beauticians studied under Madam Walker.
A few years ago when I was cleaning out family photos, I found pictures of my grandmother’s graduation classes and that’s when I was reminded that she often held her school’s graduation exercises in the sanctuary of Second Baptist.
I learned a lot from my grandmother and her friends about how to be a lady. My grandmother was a stylish and formal woman in what was a formal church.
She was an expert seamstress, making almost all of the outfits that she would wear to church. She had an eye for color and design. It was always my honor as a little girl to go with her downtown on Savannah’s Broughton Street on Saturdays to Hogan’s Department Store where they had a big selection of fabrics. She would pick out several fabrics for her spring or winter wardrobe, and she and I would sit and go through patterns and pick out the styles that she would create for the next season.
Then after her outfits were just about ready to debut, we would go to Adler’s and pick out hats, taking swatches of fabrics to match the colors. And we went to Levy’s Department Store where she would get her hosiery, gloves and handkerchiefs. And then we would walk down the street to Globe Shoes to find matching shoes and handbags to go with her new outfits.
My grandmother was a gardener at home, where she took pride in growing gardenias, roses, gladioli, lilies, coleus and caladiums. She was a member of a couple of garden clubs, where they would study flowers and plants, and then enter flower-decorating contests. When she entered contests, ALL of the flowers came from plants that she grew in her own yard. I always saw blue ribbons come back into her house after those garden club events.
She loved to play bridge and when it was her turn to host a bridge party, it was my pleasure to help her set up the bridge tables in her living room and help her prepare refreshments. (I still have one of her bridge table-and-chair sets.) The bridge club women would arrive dressed in their Sunday best, including wearing stylish hats and in winter some would wear those scary fox fur stoles with the face and the little feet. It was my job to take their wraps and hang them up. Most of these women did not drive, and when I was old enough I would drop my grandmother off and then come back to pick her up after her bridge club events.
Second Baptist was a quiet church at the time. The choir always sang traditional hymns – no gospel music. The deacons sat on the front row, and every now and then you would hear a “welllll” come off this row, or a “Yeaass!” And we children were trained to sit still and listen to the sermon. Or, we might fall asleep on someone’s lap.
Since I returned to Savannah five years ago I have begun to write a memoir documenting my life and career as a journalist. The book will be entitled “Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism Giant.” As I close, I want to share a few sentences with excerpts from the book about my grandmother.
My grandmother was an educator. She learned the trade of cosmetology at Spelman and she became Madam J.M. Walker in Savannah (no relation to Madam C.J. Walker of St. Louis, the first black female self-made millionaire). According to the book Madam C.J. Walker’s Secrets to Success, by A’Lelia Bundles, the “Madam” title was adopted by black cosmetologists from women pioneers of the French beauty industry.
My grandmother always used the moniker J.M. (my grandfather’s initials), she told me, because she wanted to ensure the respect of white people for whom she relied on getting products and services for her business.
“I don’t want them to call me by my first name,” she said. When my grandmother would go shopping downtown on Saturdays, the white sales people would always say “Good morning Mrs. Walker,” a rare honor in an era in the South when black customers were sometimes referred to as “girl” or “gal.”
My grandmother taught cosmetology to adults in night school at Beach-Cuyler School, where my own mother was a high school student. When Madam Walker opened her business on West Broad Street, she named it Boyce’s School of Beauty Culture, using the middle name of her first-born child, Catherine Boyce Walker. My grandmother was a business pioneer. She created her own glass ceiling and then she broke through it, naming herself as president of the company and my grandfather was vice president.
On Saturdays, West Broad Street was our world.
Many women came into my grandmother’s beauty school to get their hair washed, straightened and curled by students at a discount price.
Like Madam C.J. Walker, my grandmother made and sold many of the pomades used in her school. At home, her kitchen often smelled of the chemical mixtures she created, put into small jars and affixed labels to be taken to the school for use by the students and to sell to customers. I believe the difference between my grandmother and Madam C.J. Walker was that my grandmother never attempted to mass produce her products, thus vastly limiting her income potential. To this day, people ask me if my grandmother was THE Madam Walker. Sadly, “No,” I say. “My grandmother was never wealthy.”
And then, a final excerpt.
My grandmother proudly made it to my Spelman College graduation, pushed by her elder son, James, Jr., into Spelman’s Sisters Chapel in a wheelchair. I was the third generation in our family to attend Spelman, followed by my grandmother and her sister, Eliza Marie, and then Aunt Catherine, who graduated from Spelman in 1936.
My grandmother passed away in August 1971, two months after I graduated from Spelman. In his eulogy at her funeral, Rev. Quarterman, our pastor at Second Baptist Church, talked about his many visits with my grandmother at home when she was ill in her final months.
“She told me she was praying that God would keep her around long enough to see Wanda graduate from Spelman College,” Rev. Quarterman said at her funeral. “She saw Wanda graduate and I know she is at rest now.”
I knew she was proud of me but it was the first time I had heard that story.