By Hannah McCandless
Hannah is a first year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program.
In New York City on Valentine’s Day in 1880, Aida Overton Walker, originally named Ada Wilmon Overton, was born in Greenwich Village. Born to seamstress Pauline Whitfield and waiter Moses Overton, Ada was their second child with an instinctual love of dance. Recognizing her talent early, Overton’s parents enrolled Ada in a formal dance training program in Manhattan.
Graduating from Mrs. Thorp’s formal dance training school around 1897, Overton briefly toured with the Black Patti’s Troubadours before scoring an opportunity to model with Bert Williams and George Walker. The Troubadours were a group of musical and acrobatic acts comprised of trained classical dancers, singers, jugglers, and comedians. Though Overton was only briefly a part of this troupe, it is important to note that the leader of this troupe, Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, was among the most successful entertainers of her time. Jones, among other firsts, was the first African American person to sing in the famous Music Hall in 1892, which was renamed Carnegie Hall the following year.
Williams and Walker debuted their popular vaudeville performance at the Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, making Overton’s modeling and later cakewalk performance with the men widely viewed. At the young age of fifteen, this visibility propelled Overton to join the Octoroons, one of the most successful black touring groups of the time. During her time with this group, one critic said, “I have just observed the greatest girl dancer.” Her popularity soared as she became a regular on the scene as a dancer and singer.
As her career developed, Overton began performing a sister act with Grace Halliday in 1898. By 1899, Overton began performing in more serious solo acts, singing songs like “Miss Hannah from Savannah” and “Leading Lady.” Her voice was described by one critic as having a “low-pitched… natural sob” which Overton knew “how to use with telling effect in putting over a song.” Another critic spoke of her dancing in all forms, whether a cakewalk, buck-and-wing, or any “grotesque” dancing as a performance full of “gracefulness of movement which was unsurpassed by anyone.”
Marrying George Walker in 1899, the two became the premiere cakewalking couple, performing a form of “black modernist expression” which wowed audiences including royalty, the white elite, and many a concert stage. The couple spent some years touring in Europe before returning to the US in hopes of changing and challenging the harmful stereotypes of black actors and actresses, as well as black people in general.
Changing her name from Ada to Aida in 1903, Overton Walker began performing more complicated and challenging pieces, as well as changing the form of dance known as the cakewalk. The cakewalk was originally part of a slave culture which allowed for black couples to gather and poke fun at the masters by walking as a couple down a line mimicking the slave owner. A cake was given to the couple who did the best walk. As a part of Overton Walker’s attempt to dispel the historically harmful stereotypes of the dance, the couple developed a form of dance they termed “the modern cakewalk” which included a graceful and elegant form of dance. This form of dance was performed in many dance halls and theaters.
The form of dance that the couple developed became an expression of their belief in “racial uplift,” a theory influenced by W. E. B. Dubois’s “talented tenth.” The “talented tenth” is an idea that designates a class of African Americans as leaders in the early 20th century. Overton and Walker began performing in such a way which they believed raised the status of all African American people.
Outside of their time working together to perform a modern take on the cakewalk, the couple performed in many other works, always refusing to perform roles which portrayed racial stereotypes. Among her goals, Overton Walker focused on a commitment to improving the lives of African American women morally, culturally, socially, and in material goods. Overton Walker often verbalized that her form of performance was a reaction to the stereotypes of actresses as “morally unfit,” stating “I venture to think and dare to state that our profession does more toward the alleviation of color prejudice than any other profession among colored people.” This early form of feminism was very empowering for other female African American performers.
In early 1911, Overton Walker’s husband, George Walker, fell ill and died. Though saddened by her loss, Overton Walker pushed on in her career, even dressing as “Bud Jenkins,” the character played by her husband before his death, in some performances. One of the first women to dress in drag, Overton Walker was widely acclaimed for her success in singing her husband’s song “Bon Bon Buddy.” From here, her solo career relaunched.
In July of the same year, Overton Walker formed her own vaudeville unnamed troupe with one male and eight females. Dressing up as and singing as a man became a part of her new performance in this troupe, something which many crowds enjoyed. Of the times she performed with her troupe and with others in the dance community, the only critique she regularly received was that she was not on stage enough, as audiences always seemed to be wanting more.
Though her last public appearance was in July of 1914, Aida danced up until two months before her early death in October of the same year. At the young age of 34, her death was caused by kidney disease. Aida Overton Walker is remembered today, the day after her birthday, as a woman who paved the way for a more whole and less problematic view of African American performers and African American women at large. Her work built a path for many who came after her, pushing the boundaries ever further toward acceptance on and off stage. On this day, we remember and thank a woman who broke barriers and set the stage for many black women performers to come.