I used to wonder if Ada (sometimes spelled Aida) Overton Walker was actually real? I was certainly intrigued by the stunning photographs I saw of her in the old black history books as a child. I wondered if she really existed or if the beautiful woman in the photographs wasn't some modern woman they got to dress up as a fictional black female entertainer at the turn of the century. She just seemed too fabulous to be so early! But Miss Ada Overton Walker was real indeed, and she's so much more real to me NOW!
Overton-Walker was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1880, but grew up in New York City. In the late 1890's, she joined the famous Black Patti Troubadours where she was just one among many performers but soon audiences began to sit up and take notice. This young woman was different. She had an ingrained natural grace and refinement. She was stunningly beautiful and shined brilliantly at everything she seemed so naturally adept at - singing, dancing and acting. Early African American audiences searching for an honest reflection of their experience ATE HER UP when she was onstage! Especially women!
Later on, Walker brought a feminine perspective to the grounbreaking comedy team of Williams and Walker, which consisted of the legendary comics Bert Williams and George Walker. Their 1902 production, In Dahomey, preceded 1922's Shuffle Along as the first black stage show to reach the Great White Way! In the process, Ada was exposed to a more widespread audience. She soon fell in love with the equally talented (and beautiful) George Walker. When they got married, they became one of the first beloved black couples in vaudeville - sort of like a very early Ossie and Ruby Davis! Together they refused to sell out and portray their community as savages and buffoons. For the Walkers, nothing less than elegance and high-style would be the order of the day.
It is said that after Ada Overton Walker's stage debut, no musical on the black circuits dared not have a talented black female performer to draw in the crowds or close out the show. She was the height of professionalism, and the consummate singer, dancer and dramatist. Walker was renowned in her own community as an activist for both black entertainment and women's equality. Ada opened the doors for the show business daughters who would soon follow in her footsteps like Lottie Gee, her protege who found stardom in the next decade. Florence Mills, Ethel Waters and even Josephine Baker are all indebted to her.
Ada Overton Walker's sudden death from kidney failure on October 11, 1914, sent shock waves throughout the African American entertainment community. Her legacy of polish and grande dame-style will forever be attached to her name. Surprisingly, Walker's enduring natural beauty is still as fresh as it was when I first saw them as a kid. Some elements of Ada Overton Walker's vintage photos are still as shockingly contemporay as they were over 100 years ago ...