Old Gold: Iowa alumna key in Chicago’s African-American literary movement

BY: DAVID MCCARTNEY  

(Editor’s note: The Old Gold series provides a look at University of Iowa history and tradition through images housed in University Archives, Department of Special Collections.)

Black-and-white portrait of Margaret Walker Alexander
Margaret Walker

The centennial of Margaret Walker’s birth on July 7 reminds Old Gold of the endurance of the written word and the spirit it conveys. Walker (1915–1998), an acclaimed poet and author, was at the forefront of Chicago’s African-American literary movement in the mid-20th century. She is also an alumna of the University of Iowa, receiving a Master of Art in 1940 and a doctorate in 1965.

Walker came of age at a time of rising black consciousness as the civil rights movement emerged in the United States. Her poetry collection For My People was praised as a breakthrough in expression of sorrow, anger, yet great optimism, and it received top honors in the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition in 1942. Two years before, in 1940, her collection was submitted as her master’s thesis; Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, served as her academic adviser.

The closing stanza of Walker’s title poem expresses hope and a will for new freedom, an expression as timely today as it was 75 years ago:

     Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born.
     Let a bloody peace be written in the sky.
     Let a second generation full of courage
     issue forth, let a people loving freedom
     come to growth. Let a beauty full of
     healing and a strength of final clenching
     be the pulsing in our spirits and our blood.
     Let the martial songs be written, let the
     dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
     rise and take control!

Of Margaret Walker’s premiere work, Stephen Vincent Benét wrote, “There is a deep sincerity in all these poems—a sincerity at times disquieting. For this is what one American has found and seen—this is the song of her people, of her part of America. You cannot deny its honesty, you cannot deny its candor. And this is not far away or long ago—this is part of our nation, speaking.”

Book spines

In the early 1960s, Walker returned to Iowa City, this time to pursue a doctorate degree. Her acclaimed novel Jubilee, published in 1966 under her married name Margaret Walker Alexander, was set in the Civil War South and drew from manuscript collections in a dozen repositories, including UI Special Collections in the Main Library. Her Iowa mentors at this time included Vance Bourjaily and R. Verlin Cassill, both members of the faculty of the Writers’ Workshop, and Alma Hovey, assistant professor emerita of English, who shared her home with Walker during her doctoral research.

Today, the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University in Mississippi, where she taught from 1949 to 1979, is a testament to her dedication to the study of African-Americans—their history, their culture, their heritage. Her personal papers are also housed there; meanwhile, the original, unpublished forms of two of her most highly acclaimed works are at the University of Iowa Main Library’s Department of Special Collections. Old Gold is in awe of these works and of the remarkable woman who created them.

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