A number of black women born in Alabama have achieved great success or sometimes great controversy in their lives and careers. Coretta Scott King from Marion is one who comes immediately to mind. Lesser known in this state is Marva Collins who was born in Monroeville but who went on to great achievement as an educator in Chicago. She has published several books based on her experiences in the Windy City and was the subject of a 1981 made-for-tv movie in which she was played by Cicely Tyson.
Birmingham has its share of individuals in this group: Condolezza Rice (academic, National Security Advisor, Secretary of State), Angela Davis (political activist, academic), Vonetta Flowers (Olympic gold medalist), Odetta (singer) and Nell Carter (actress and singer). Two well-known writers who are Birmingham natives are Margaret Walker and Sonia Sanchez.
Margaret Abigail Walker was born on July 7, 1915, the daughter of a Methodist minister, Sigismund Walker, and his music teacher wife Marion. Raised in Mississippi and New Orleans, she graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago in 1935. The following year she began work with the Federal Writers’ Project, a federal program designed to help authors during the Great Depression. She earned a creative writing master’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1940. Her thesis, a collection of poems, was published as For My People and won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award.
In 1943 she married Firnist James Alexander, an interior designer; by 1949 the family had settled in Mississippi, where Walker had accepted a faculty position at Jackson State College. In 1968 she founded what is now the Margaret Walker Center, an archive and museum devoted to the study of African-American history and culture. She retired in 1979 and died in 1998.
Margaret Walker published other collections of poetry as well as non-fiction, but her best known work is probably her only novel, Jubilee. Published in 1966, the novel grew from stories about her great-grandmother, Margaret Brown. Set in Greenville, Alabama, the novel follows the story of a slave woman into Reconstruction. More about Walker can be found in her entry in the Encyclopedia of Alabama.
Sonia Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver in Birmingham on September 9, 1934, and attended Tuggle Elementary School. In 1943 she went to live with her father, sister and stepmother in Harlem. She graduated from New York City’s Hunter College in 1955. She later studied poetry under Louise Bogan at New York University. Sanchez has retained the name of her first husband although that marriage did not last. A second marriage to poet Etheridge Knight also ended in divorce.
Over the course of her still-active career Sanchez has published a number of poetry books as well as plays and children’s books. She taught at eight different universities before her retirement from Temple University in Philadelphia in 1999. She has read her work and lectured at more than 500 colleges in the U.S. and other countries. In addition to other awards, she received the Harper Lee Award for Alabama's Distinguished Writer of the Year in 2004. You can learn more about her life and work at her website and her entry in the Encyclopedia of Alabama.
The photographs of Margaret Walker and Sonia Sanchez are taken from their entries at BhamWiki.
A version of this piece appeared at DiscoverBirmingham.org in September 2013.