As a professor of English at Jackson State University in 1968, Margaret Walker Alexander founded the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People. Already an accomplished author, she stood at the forefront of a nascent Black Studies movement, but the Institute also reflected her immersion in 20th Century African-American history and culture. During her lifetime, she had the unique opportunity both to be mentored by the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright and to be a mentor to writers such as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on July 7, 1915, Walker was reading and writing by the time she was five. When her family settled in New Orleans in 1925, her writing flourished after meeting Langston Hughes, who encouraged her to leave the South to complete her education. Graduating from Northwestern University, her father’s alma mater, in 1935, Walker stayed in Chicago to work with the Federal Writers’ Project. There, she developed a close friendship with Richard Wright and joined his Southside Writers Group.
In 1937, Walker wrote her seminal poem, “For My People,” for which she became the first black woman to receive the Yale University Younger Poets Award. By 1949, Walker and her husband, Firnist Alexander, had moved their four children to Mississippi, so she could join the English Department at Jackson State. While at JSU, she completed her doctoral dissertation, a neo-slave narrative inspired by the memories of her maternal grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier. Published in 1966, Jubilee represented thirty years of research and reflection and has never since been out of print.
Alexander’s lasting achievement at JSU was the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People. As director of the Institute, she organized several conferences that were the first of their kind, including the 1971 National Evaluative Conference on Black Studies and the 1973 Phyllis Wheatley Poetry Festival.
After thirty years of teaching, Margaret Walker Alexander retired as Professor Emerita and donated her literary and administrative papers to the Institute that she had founded and that was subsequently named in her honor. The Margaret Walker Papers at JSU constitute one of the single largest collections of a modern black, female writer anywhere in the world. The Walker Center houses close to forty significant manuscript collections such as the papers of former U.S. Secretary of Education, Roderick Paige, and a large oral history repository with more than 2,000 interviews.