Mississippi: Margaret Walker Center

B & W image of women in front of the Black Studies archive

Courtesy of the Margaret Walker Center

The Margaret Walker Center (MWC) at Jackson State University is an archive and museum dedicated to the preservation, interpretation, and dissemination of African American history and culture. Founded as the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People by the writer and scholar Margaret Walker in 1968, the Center seeks to honor her academic, artistic, and activist legacy through its archival collections, exhibits, and public programs.

Open to the public, the Center houses significant records like the papers of the late Margaret Walker; those of the former U.S. Secretary of Education, Roderick Paige; and a large oral history department that includes more than 2000 interviews. The MWC also offers museum and exhibit spaces that highlight the Center’s collections and the history of Jackson State University and engages the community through public programs, literacy projects, and educational workshops often in coordination with other JSU departments across the campus. The MWC continues to collect living memories, archival records, and personal papers for scholarly use. The MWC advocates the preservation of the built environment such as historic 1903 Ayer Hall, which is the oldest structure on the Jackson State University campus and was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

In 1961, Ayer Hall was the site of a prayer protest in support of the Tougaloo Nine, who had been arrested at a sit-in at the Jackson Public Library. Two sisters and students at Jackson State, Joyce and Dorie Ladner, led the prayer vigil outside Ayer Hall, which was their dormitory, and they were promptly expelled from the University for their activism. They subsequently enrolled at Tougaloo College and went on to renowned careers as activists and scholars. An esteemed sociologist, Joyce Lander served as Provost and then Interim President of Howard University in 1994. Then, just a few hundred feet from Ayer Hall in 1970, Jackson City Police and Mississippi Highway Patrolmen marched on the Jackson State campus to suppress student protests over their treatment at the hands of white motorists who often sped dangerously through campus. In the middle of the night when no protests were happening, the police force arrived in full riot gear and sprayed 500 rounds of ammunition in 28 seconds into Alexander Hall, killing two young men and wounding dozens. No police officer was ever charged.

The COFO Civil Rights Education Center forms another part of the Margaret Walker Center’s portfolio of programming. The COFO building was the state headquarters for the umbrella civil rights group, the Council of Federated Organizations, which operated the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, better known as Freedom Summer, from this site in 1964. The COFO Center is available for tours and group meetings. When Margaret Walker as a professor of English at then Jackson State College founded the Institute in 1968, she was already an accomplished author, and she stood at the forefront of a nascent Black Studies movement. The Institute 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 before enrolling in the MA program in the early years of the Iowa Writers Workshop. In 1937, Walker wrote her seminal poem, “For My People,” and, for the book of poetry by the same name, she became the first black woman to receive the Yale University Younger Poets Award in 1942.

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. In Jackson, the family moved to Guynes Street, where Medgar and Myrlie Evers relocated just a few years later when Medgar was named the first full-time field secretary for the NAACP Mississippi. Not long after, Evers opened the permanent offices of the state NAACP on John R. Lynch Street, next to the Jackson State campus. Margaret Walker lived and worked on the same street that Medgar was assassinated on and that his funeral procession went down. His death deeply impacted Margaret, and she wrote the poem “Micah” in his honor in a book of poetry, Prophets for a New Day that she dedicated to civil rights martyrs. While at Jackson State, Walker 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. It was the first of its kind in a genre that came to include Alex Haley’s Roots and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Margaret Walker’s lasting achievement at JSU was the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People in 1968. The same year that it was founded, Martin Luther King was assassinated a few hours away in Memphis, and, less than a year later, Walker began a MLK Birthday Convocation, one of the first such remembrances in the nation, which is now in its 53rd year at Jackson State. As director of the Institute, Margaret Walker 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, which brought 30 of the leading black female writers of the day to campus including Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Mari Evans, Paula Giddings, and many more.

After three decades of teaching, Margaret Walker 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. At the heart of the Margaret Walker Center’s mission is the preservation of materials related to the history and culture of African Americans. Open for research, the Center’s collections include archival and manuscript collections, Africana book collections, subject files, oral histories, newspaper clippings, and museum artifacts. The Center is also home to the Margaret Walker Personal Papers Digital Archives Project. An ambitious undertaking to digitize approximately 50% of the Margaret Walker collection, the Center has completed the first phase, including the digitization of Walker’s personal journals, dating from the 1930s to the 1990s and totaling more than 10,000 handwritten pages.

The Margaret Walker Center became part of the African American Civil Rights Network in February 2021.

The African American Civil Rights Network recognizes the civil rights movement in the United States and the sacrifices made by those who fought against discrimination and segregation. Created by the African American Civil Rights Act of 2017, and coordinated by the National Park Service, the Network tells the stories of the people, places, and events of the U.S. civil rights movement through a collection of public and private elements.

Last updated: February 23, 2021