First of Alice Walker Series as appears in Eatonton Messenger, Eatonton, GA.
Author Larry Moore
Contributed by Rita Redd
Below is my column for 7-17, "The Alice Walker Story" which will be the first of a series. The photo is of Alice's brother, Curtis, next to their great grandmother's (born as a slave) headstone. Great great grandfather, JM Montgomery, is also buried there along with a number of unmarked graves, many of which are probably children. With the help of several Putnam cemetery sleuths we recently located the cemetery in a remote overgrown wooded area which had to be cleared.
The Alice Walker Story
(The first in a series on Putnam’s Alice Walker and her family)
Alice Walker’s family is one of the oldest in Putnam County, the first ancestor arriving almost two hundred years ago. The story goes that Mae Poole (Alice’s great-great-great-great grandmother) carrying two children walked behind a wagon from Virginia to Putnam County sometime after the County was formed in 1807. There was no room for slaves in the wagon. The years brought many other challenges but the family survived and finally Alice, as well as her seven brothers and sisters, left the area (as Joel Chandler Harris did a hundred years earlier) to seek greater opportunities. Some returned later to live and Alice returned for visits and family functions. Brother Curtis bought property on Wards Chapel Rd. in 1975 where their mother’s family (Grant) once lived. The Walker family lived on Wards Chapel Rd. for generations. Brother Curtis, Putnam Cemetery sleuth Lamar Griffin, and I with the help of Lee Hicks and Anne Hoersten located the gravesites of slave ancestors in a remote wooded and overgrown area (see photo of Curtis with great grand mother Sallie’s headstone). I have discussed this find with Alice and she is very interested in incorporating the cemetery into the family history. (This find is part of a years long data collection effort leading to a planned cemetery book covering all Putnam cemeteries, the publishing of which will be a joint effort of the Historic Piedmont Scenic Byway and the Eatonton-Putnam Historical Society with support from the Probate Court and a variety of citizens.)
Of course, Alice gained worldwide acclaim writing about the places and people of Putnam she knew well (with doses of fiction added as necessary) and more importantly the breadth of relationships that were loving though many were often strained and even brutal. The healing qualities of the land and even the unifying thread of blues music are also woven into some of her work. A recent book of poetry is titled Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth. Her critics complained of her treatment of some groups and of her activism but history is honoring her body of work, which includes children’s books, articles (New York Times, Ms Magazine, etc.) as well as poetry and she has emerged as one of the truly significant writers of the twentieth century. Of course, the Pulitzer Prize winning The Color Purple and the subsequent movie produced by Quincy Jones and directed by Steven Spielberg, which premiered in Eatonton in 1986, stand out in the popular mind.
Alice was born in Putnam County in 1944 to poor sharecroppers, Willie Lee Walker and Minnie Tallulah Grant Walker. Willie Lee made only about $300 a year and Minnie was a seamstress who could help with the family finances. According to Alice’s sister, Ruth, who now lives in Atlanta, Alice wanted to learn to play the piano but the family did not have the money for lessons so she began to spend more time writing and possibly was “born with the inspiration to be a writer.” The impact of another childhood event was even more significant. At the age of eight Alice was playing Cowboys and Indians and was accidentally shot in the eye with a BB gun and blinded in that eye. Ruth referred to the resulting scar as “the big white glob” that changed Alice from a precocious, outgoing child, who spoke articulately to church and other groups to a withdrawn, introverted girl with declining grades. The teasing at school over the scar made matters worse. Alice read quietly for hours and began to write poetry. Alice has been quoted as saying that the results of the accident enabled her to become more realistic in the observations of people and gain maturity in developing and evaluating relationships. At 14, Alice visited her brother Bill in Boston where he arranged for the scar to be removed. Life turned around. Top grades returned and Alice was later able to graduate as valedictorian of her high school class with a scholarship to Spelman College in Atlanta (she later graduated from Sarah Lawrence in New York). According to Ruth she became “the wonderful, happy, smiling person she was before.” Her class elected her Miss Butler-Baker and she became the May Queen of the senior prom. Brother Curtis has the same memory of events and the “fun times’ they had playing together as they grew up.
Alice went on to college, sought many developing experiences (some very risky and painful) and pursued life as an activist and a writer and mother.
Published U.S. Legacies Sep 2003