Aida Overton Walker is a name that should be more familiar to vaudeville and theater lovers than it is for she was the foremost African-American star of her generation which comprised the early years of the 20th century. Her national and even international fame was such that she was a living legend of black show business and in fact her vision of a world with dignified and respected black show business artists who did not have to demean themselves onstage was years ahead of reality. Her work helping young black artists and especially black women to become super-achievers and her own remarkable talents as singer, dancer, actress, comedienne and choreographer caused her to be one of the most admired and respected black women in America.
Aida was born in 1880 in New York City and became known quickly for her talent as a dancer and singer as well as her great natural beauty. By 1895 she was a member of the famous black touring company disparagingly known as John Isham’s Octoroons and then joined the Black Patti Troubadours. This famous group was headed by Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, known as Sissieretta Jones, who became a famous soprano. She was called the “Black Patti” after the famous white soprano Adelina Patti, who was one of the foremost superstars of opera of her time. Her troupe, the Troubadours, consisted of a whole show that entertained black and sometimes also white audiences throughout the country. The show had some 40 performers but Adelina emerged as one of its leading stars.
In 1898 she joined the rapidly rising comedy team of Bert Williams and George Walker, being featured in all of their landmark black performances including The Policy Players (1899), The Sons of Ham (1900), the very famous In Dahomey (1902), Abyssinia (1905) and Bandanna Land (1907). Walker and Overton married soon after they began performing together.
Her performance of Miss Hannah from Savannah in Sons of Ham caused a national sensation and furthermore Aida did the choreography for all of these big shows and emerged as the glue or catalyst that made the Walker-Williams shows work so well, as she worked behind the scenes with her husband supplying the themes and basic ideas for the shows, which then featured the great humor of Bert Williams. Although forgotten today, whereas Williams and Walker are more remembered, the three of them formed the most popular trio of “colored” entertainers in the world in the early years of the 20th century. Aida was also in demand as a choreographer for other shows such as Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson’s The Red Moon (1909).
In these shows, although she performed in blackface, Aida refused to play black plantation stereotypes and an essential part of her political activism was to make the black woman stand tall and be an object of dignity and respect, even though she would attempt to make this statement through comedy and song. She became a huge hit in England from 1902 to 1904 with In Dahomey and was frequently hired for major society parties because she became known as the Queen of the Cakewalk from her dancing in the show and the British wanted to learn this remarkable dance so-named because originally those black dancers who did it well might receive a cake for a prize. In 1903 she played a command performance at Buckingham Palace for King Edward VII which added to her international reputation.
In the midst of this success her husband allegedly contracted syphilis through his affairs with other women and he collapsed during the run of Bandanna Land in 1908. She was able to fill in for her ailing husband, performing his part in drag and managing to save the company, but eventually he grew more ill and died in 1911 as the disease, which had symptoms of stuttering and memory loss was incurable at this time. Bert Williams went on to solo success with the Ziegfeld Follies and Aida was forced to develop into a solo artist as well, leading to her work as choreographer and featured star in Red Moon and she joined the famous African-American Smart Set Company in 1910 while her husband was still gravely ill. What she must have thought of her husband’s behavior is not recorded but her indomitable will to survive and continue her art and her work even despite his situation is clear. Ten days after her husband’s death she signed a contract to star with S. H. Dudley in an all-black traveling show. Walker was buried in his home town of Lawrence, Kansas, one of many black superstars of the time to die of syphilis which almost reached epidemic proportions in the black theatrical community around this time.
Her post-Walker career was also distinctive as she emerged as a female superstar and was often invited to prominent white social gatherings to demonstrate the latest dances suitable for such events. Only Bert Williams among other black performers was able to do this and to work with white performers. For example she played the lead in Oscar Hammerstein’s 1912 revival of Salome at the Victoria Theater in New York, a role she had essayed in the black theater since the initial Salome craze of the early years of the century.
Aida was also an activist for black causes years and years before this was something that was popularly accepted. She raised significant funds for the Industrial Home for Colored Working Girls and worked to promote opportunities for young black women in the entertainment business through her connections. She hoped to promote a new generation of refined and elegant black performers free of the hamstringing stereotypes of the previous decades. To this end in 1913 and 1914 she promoted the Porto Rico Girls and the Happy Girls and produced shows for these troupes to show black women as original creative talent. This she did despite suffering from a number of disabling illnesses that beset her after the death of her husband.
In the 1910s she was described by critics as “the best Negro comedienne today” and “the most fascinating and vivacious female comedy actress the Negro race has ever produced”. Her ability to mesmerize an audience and her standard numbers performed in drag which she perfected while filling in for her ailing husband were legendary. Indeed each of her performances in shows or in vaudeville featured one of her famous drag numbers.
And then just as suddenly it was all over. Just 34 years of age, Aida died quickly on October 1, 1914 from kidney failure and hundreds of people came to her house to honor her and to grieve. A true
legend of black vaudeville and theater had passed. Every black female entertainer of note in this world owes a great debt to this pioneering entertainer who envisioned a world which honored and respected black talent and who died at the height of her fame.
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection is proud to have rare original sheet music of Aida performing the Oh! You Devil Rag (1909) composed by Ford T. Dabney. “As introduced by Aida Overton Walker, America’s Foremost Colored Comedienne” (pictured on the right here).