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May 11, 2017

Noblesville’s Connection to the Harlem Renaissance – Mae Walker

Noblesville’s Connection to the Harlem Renaissance – Mae Walker

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

A local arts group called Noblesville Interdisciplinary Creativity Expo, or NICE, is having a workshop based on literary materials on Tuesday, May 16th.  Some of the works that they will be looking at are from the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance.  It may surprise some people to learn that there is a connection between that significant cultural movement and Noblesville.

Madam C. J. Walker, the famous Hoosier African American cosmetics millionaire, had a daughter named A’Lelia who was a major patron of the Harlem Renaissance.  The Walker connection to Noblesville came in 1912, when A’lelia adopted a young woman named Fairy Mae Bryant.  Fairy Mae was the daughter of Perry Bryant, who worked at the Model Mill as a firemen – one of the men in charge of feeding coal into the boilers and keeping the fire going to create steam.  (This was necessary work after the gas boom failed.)

Perry had been born in Missouri and had moved to Indiana where he married Sara Etta Hammond, a Roberts Settlement descendent.  There were seven children in the family, of which Fairy Mae was the third, born November 25, 1898.  The Bryants were very involved with the Bethel A.M.E. church and the African American Masonic lodge.  They first lived in the Federal Hill area, later moving to 98 West Hannibal Street (508 today – it’s not known if the structure is the same building).  Tragedy struck when Perry Bryant died of cerebral meningitis and heart disease in June of 1909 and the family was left destitute.  He is buried in Riverside Cemetery.

The Walker and Bryant families had first connected because Fairy Mae’s maternal grandmother was acquaintance of Madame Walker in Indianapolis.  Madam Walker had visited Noblesville in 1910 to attend a Bethel A. M. E. church event.  After her adoption, Mae grew up in the Walkers’ New York mansion “Villa Lewaro”.  The mansion was a gathering place for the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance – people like Langston HughesCountee Cullen, and Paul Robeson.  Mae became a model for the Walker company and when she was married in 1923, her mother organized a “million dollar wedding” that was one of the notable events in New York that year.  Mae took over as head of the company after her adoptive mother died in 1931.  She herself died in 1945.

This story is told in more detail in the book “On Her Own Ground”, the biography of Madame Walker written by her great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles.  There are copies of the book available at the library.   A’lelia Bundles has a website that has a great deal of information about the family