Madam Walker and Doctor Ward.

The Netflix limited series Self Made is refocusing attention on Madam C.J. Walker, the millionaire entrepreneur and empowerer of women best known for her haircare empire. The series is honest about being more “inspired by” Madam Walker’s life than true to it. Chockablock with B-list black star power (plus Octavia Spencer), Self Made is entertaining if you don’t think about it too hard. Ultimately, however, its heavy-handed resort to tropes and types and its soap opera style do a disservice to her story. Anyone wanting a closer truth should turn to A’Lelia Bundles’ On Her Own Ground, or my fave, Beverly Lowry’s Her Dream of Dreams: The Rise and Triumph of Madam C.J. Walker. Among other things, you’ll find an important part of Walker’s story completely omitted from Self-Made — her relationship with Dr. Joseph H. Ward, an African-American physician born in Wilson about 1872.

When she first arrived in Indianapolis in 1910, Walker boarded with Joseph and Zella Locklear Ward and gave beauty culture demonstrations in their parlor.

Indianapolis Recorder, 12 February 1910.

Indianapolis Recorder, 5 March 1910.

Walker and her daughter Lelia Robinson grew close to the Wards, and Dr. Ward was Madam’s personal physician the remainder of her life. He was at her bedside when she died.

The Wards accompanied Madam Walker on a drive to Kansas City, Missouri, where she addressed the National Educational Congress on “How the Negro Woman May Success in Business.” Indianapolis Star, 13 July 1913.

On a drive from Saint Louis to Kansas City, the automobile in which the Wards and Walker were traveling was jumped by a wild animal. Indianapolis Star, 28 September 1913.

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Also in 1913, on the steps of the newly dedicated Y.M.C.A., Madam Walker with Booker T. Washington and, behind them, her lawyer Freeman Ransom and Dr. Joseph H. Ward.  

From Lowry’s Her Dream of Dreams:

“By Friday, Ward informs the household that Madame Walker cannot last longer than Sunday. On Saturday night, about midnight, she slips into unconsciousness. And her faithful friends and doctors and family gather around her bed; they are religious people who also believe in love and company, and that no one should pass from this life into the next alone. And so they wait, hushed, whispering, watching her, waiting.

“Sunday dawns warms and clear, and early rays of the sun crack through the drawn damask curtains and perhaps fall in splinters across the rose silk coverlet on Madame’s bed. At seven o’clock her people are still there, but no one feels her go and no one knows when she dies until Ward turns and says, ‘It’s over.’

“And if they weep it is with relief, for the end of her suffering. Her dying words, Ward later reports, were ‘I want to live to help my race.'”

Photo courtesy of Madam Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

A colored jeweler.

By what feat of alchemy did Robert T. Alston convert himself from farmhand to schoolteacher to jeweler and watchmaker?

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Wilson Daily Times, 23 August 1919.

Per the nomination form for the Wilson Central Business-Tobacco Warehouse Historic District, Alston-William Building at 552 East Nash Street [once part of Stantonsburg Street]: “Built ca 1920 as a jewelry shop for Robert T. Alston, this plainly finished, one-story brick commercial building was occupied by him until the 1940s. [In fact, Alston died in 1931.] The flat-roofed building as a tile-capped parapet and its original recessed entrance and flanking display windows, but displays no decorative brickwork on the upper facade. The single interior space has been renovated and has a lowered ceiling. since being vacated by Alston, this building has been occupied by Lamm’s Fish Shop, Hill’s Bicycle Shop, Keen’s Seafood Market, and since 1968, by William’s Barber Shop.”


In the 1870 census of Walnut Grove township, Granville County, North Carolina: Aron Alston, 47; wife Rosetta, 48; and children Anna, 15, Haywood, 14, Robert, 12, Sallie, 10, Agnes, 9, Mary J., 4, and John H., 1.

In the 1880 census of Walnut Grove township, Granville County: Aaron Alston, 52; wife Rosetta, 55; and children Robert, 21, Agnes, 18, Thomas, 16, Mary G., 14, and John H., 11.

Robert T. Alston, 22, married Julia Wortham, 19, on 16 March 1881 in Walnut Grove township, Granville County.

On 24 January 1899, John Edge, 21, of Edgecombe County, son of Randall and Milly Edge, married Mary Eva Alston, 18, of Edgecombe County, daughter of Robert T. Alston.

In the 1900 census of Lower Town Creek township, Edgecombe County, North Carolina: widower Robert T. Alston, 42, school teacher, and son  John T., 15, farm laborer. In the 1900 census of Upper Town Creek township, Edgecombe County: farmer John Edge, 22, wife Mary, 18, and sister-in-law Carrie Auston, 10.

In the 1910 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: laundress Mattie Cory, 35, widow; daughter Evelyn, 9; widower Robert Alston, 63, general repair laborer; and [no first name listed] Albriton, 34, lodger, house carpenter.

In the 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Alston Robt T (c) 107 Pender watchmaker

In an undated 1914 newspaper insert “Progressive Colored Citizens of Wilson, N.C.,” Robert T. Alston paid for this ad: “Watches, clocks, jewelry, eye glasses, spectacles, etc. I handle the very best grade of watches, such as the Elgin, Waltham, Illinois, Hampden, and Hamilton. Your credit is good. Yes, I will sell you a watch on the weekly payment plan: that is, ‘So much down and so much each week.’ I do a mail order business also. If you want a watch or other jewelry, write me for terms and order blanks. Now in a few days I shall have a large stock of watches, clocks, etc. on hand. Call to see me or write.”

Mary E. Edge died 13 November 1920 on Coopers township, Nash County. Per her death certificate, she was about 37 years old; was born in Granville County to Robert Alston and Julia Wortham; and was married to John Edge, who was informant.

In the 1922 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Alston Robt T (c) jeweler 552 E Nash

In the 1925 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Alston Robt T (c) jeweler and watchmaker 552 E Nash

In the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Alston Robt T (c) jeweler 552 E Nash

On 16 January 1929, John T. Alston, 43, of Toisnot township, son of R.T. Alston and Julia [no maiden name listed], married Annie Artis, 32, of Taylors township, daughter of Ed and Zanie Artis. A.M.E. Zion minister J.E. Kennedy performed the service in the presence of Chas. S. Thomas, Hugh C. Reid, and Clarence Artis.

In the 1930 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Alston Robt T (c) watch repr 552 E Nash h d[itto]

Robert T. Alston died 10 August 1930 in Wilson township. Per his death certificate, he was 72 years old; was born in Granville County, North Carolina, to Aaron Alston and Rosetta Alston; was the widower of Julia Alston; and worked as a jewelry and watchmaker. John T. Alston, Elm City, was informant.

After Alston’s death, his estate defaulted on payment of the mortgage on his Nash Street property, and the trustee advertised its sale.

Wilson Daily Times, 14 April 1933.

Carrie Lindsey died 5 October 1944 in Toisnot township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was born 7 April 1890 in Granville County to R.T. Alston and Julia Wortham; was the widow of John Lindsey; worked in farming; and was buried at William Chapel. Arthur Lindsey, Elm City, was informant.

John T. Alston died died 3 April 1952 in Elm City, Toisnot township. Per his death certificate, he was born 7 March 1889 in Granville County to Robert T. Alston and Charity Worthly; was a farmer; and was married. Informant was Annie Alston.

Vanilla Beane celebrates 100!

Jeni Hansen has graciously allowed me to share plans for the observation of the 100th birthday of her grandmother, celebrated milliner Vanilla Powell Beane, who was born in Wilson County on 13 September 1919.

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Find more on Vanilla Beane here:

  • Articles

The Washington Post, Celebrating 3 sisters’ lives and longevity, Avis Thomas-Lester, 5 November  2011

The Washington Post, C​elebrated D.C. Milliner Marks 90th Birthday With Friends, Hats, Hamil R. Harris, 20 September 2009

Afro-American Newspapers, ​D.C. Woman Celebrates 100th Birthday with Sisters, 97, and 93, Avis Thomas-Lester and Teria Rogers, 14 November 2012

Associated Press,​Dr. Height’s Hat Immortalized in Metal, Sarah Karush and Teneille Gibson, 15 June 2010

  • Videos

Hat Academy: “​Bene Millinery​
Museum of Fine Arts: ​Dorothy Height’s Hats 360

Press contact:

Jeni Hansen​

Women are best.

While director of the University of North Carolina Press, W. T. Couch also worked as a part-time official of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, serving as assistant and associate director for North Carolina (1936-1937) and as director for the southern region (1938-1939). The Federal Writers’ Project Papers are housed at U.N.C.’s Southern Historical Collection and include Couch’s correspondence and life histories of about 1,200 individuals collected by F.W.P. members. At least two African-American residents of Wilson, Georgia Crockett Aiken and William Batts, were memorialized in this way. 

Folder 324 contains the transcript of the interview with Georgia Crockett Aiken, titled “Women are best.”

The first page is a key to the pseudonyms used in the transcript.

Georgia Aiken is mistakenly described as white. She lived at 120 Pender Street in Wilson. When her interview began, she was in her kitchen directing the work of two children who were cleaning the house. She was born in 1872 into a family of ten children, all of whom were dead except her. [The family had lived in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and Georgia’s brothers included Alexander and James Crockett.]

Georgia Aiken grew up near a school and, because both her parents were wage-earners, was able to attend through the ninth grade. She obtained a teaching certificate and started teaching in 1889 a one-room school “out in the country.” She made $25 a month for teaching seven grades and reminisced on the hardships — and reward — of serving the children of the community.

In 1908, Georgia Aiken arrived in Wilson. She started high school coursework [where? the Colored High School did not open until 1924] and received a big raise when she completed it. She taught for 48 years, all told.

She dated John Aiken for two years before they married. Aiken owned a prosperous livery stable, and the couple saved their money to build a house. When they bought the Pender Street lot, a widow lived with her children in a small house there. [A 1905 plat map shows John Aiken already owned a lot on Pender Street. Was it a different one?] John Aiken died before the house was completed [in 1914] and Georgia Aiken took over the business.

Though worried about finances, Georgia Aiken went ahead with plans to build. The livery business did well until “automobiles came in.” She sold the business at a loss and turned her attention to teaching and caring for her house.

The writer described Aiken’s kitchen in deep detail.

Her “cook stove … finished in blue porcelain” was probably much like this one, found in an on-line ad:

Aiken continued, speaking of training her helper, her standards for housekeeping and food preparation, and her preference for paying cash.

And then: “I might as well say that I voted in the last city elections and have voted ever since woman’s suffrage has come in, and I expect to as long as I can get to the polls. I would like to see some women run for some of the town offices. I think they’re just as capable as the men who set themselves up so high and mighty. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if women didn’t get more and more of the high positions in the near future. …”

And: churches and government are run by rings, and “if you don’t stand in well with these, you don’t stand a chance.”

“I believe the women do more in church work than men.”

Georgia Aiken took in boarders at her home on Pender Street and always tried to make her “guests feel at home.” “When times are good and business is stirring” — likely, she meant during tobacco market season — “I always have my house full.” In slow times, though, it was hard to meet expenses. Taxes were due and though she knew she would make the money to pay them in the fall, she hated to incur fees.

Aiken paid her helper in board and clothes only, though she wished she could pay wages. If she stayed long enough, Aiken would consider leaving her some interest in the property after her death, though her niece in New York might object. She lamented a long delay in repainting the exterior of the house, but had plans to do so.

The writer described the house’s rooms and furnishings, mentioning their wear and age. Aiken indicated her preference for “clean decent folks” as tenants. She had two baths in the house and hot water from the stove for both. She could not afford to install steam heat when the house was being built and rued the dustiness of coal.

“Helping anyone in need is being nice to anyone, and the one that helps me most during the few years that I’ve left in this life is the one I hope to remember with the most of what I leave when I’m called to the life to come.”

A summary:

Georgia Crockett Aikens died 17 August 1939 in Wilson, apparently just a few months after giving this interview. Per her death certificate, she was 67 years old, born in Wayne County to William Crockett and Rachel Powell, resided at 120 Pender Street in Wilson, and was married to John Aikens.

“Federal Writers’ Project Papers, 1936-1940, Collection No. 03709.” The Southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.