Bess Bolden Walcott

Bess Bolden Walcott Elizabeth (Bess) Adeline Bolden Walcott (1886-1988) played a vital role as public relations director at Tuskegee Institute with her meticulous work to curate and document the collections of George Washington Carver and other items significant to Tuskegee history that proved instrumental in establishing the school as a National Historic Site. In addition to her many other contributions, she co-founded and directed Tuskegee Institute's first all-black Red Cross Chapter and led its efforts assisting active and veteran Tuskegee Airmen and masses of needy black Macon County residents who were prevented from obtaining health and social services from the city's white Red Cross Chapter during segregation.

Bolden was born on November 4, 1886, in Xenia, Greene County, Ohio. Her father, William Pinkney Bolden, was born in 1862 in North Carolina and was a cook by trade. In 1885, William wed Fannie A. Bizzell, who came from a prominent Greene County family. Fannie Bolden gave birth to four children by 1900, but only Bess and her younger sister Theresa survived. The white-owned Xenia Daily Gazette covered the couple's marriage ceremony and reported frequently on Fannie's father, Abner Perry Bizzell (1841-1915), in its column "Our Colored Citizens."

Abner Bizzell was a grocery store owner and operator, a U.S. Colored Troops veteran of the Civil War, a member of the Freemasons, and a civil servant. He was one of the first African American men to serve on a jury in Greene County, and he served on the Xenia city council's board of equalization overseeing tax policies and appeals. The Xenia Gazette reported that Bizzell operated an "equal rights barbershop" called the Little Gem on East Main Street, a nickname which likely reflected the progressive ideas that circulated freely among Xenia's middle-class black community. Bess's maternal grandmother, Mary M. Napper Bizzell, was a schoolteacher, as were a maternal aunt and uncle.

Bolden graduated from Painesville High School, just east of Cleveland, in 1904. Her upbringing in a family of industrious role models and the influence of Painesville's progressive black community molded her subsequent pursuit of opportunities to excel as a career professional and civic volunteer. She matriculated to Oberlin College in nearby Lorain County and studied sociology. Her senior yearbook stated that she had contempt for the theory of natural selection and for androcentrism, a theory that referred to privileging males above females in society. Bolden graduated in 1908 and shortly thereafter accepted a job offer from Tuskegee Institute (present-day Tuskegee University) president Booker T. Washington to catalog his personal library and to conduct research for a prominent Tuskegee sociologist. In 1911, she married Jamaican-born William Holbrook Walcott (1884-1987), a professor at the Institute. The couple would have four children and later divorce.

Historian Marjorie Spruill Wheeler noted that the famed women's rights activist, suffragist, and Tuskegee Industrial and Normal Institute teacher Adella Hunt Logan (1863-1915) mentored Bolden Walcott after she began working at Tuskegee and that the women bonded over their common interest in community uplift and women's voting rights. Bolden Walcott likely first voted in the years following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920: She is listed as a qualified voter in Macon County records beginning in 1924 and for decades afterward.

Though recruited as a librarian and researcher, Bolden Walcott later taught library science, English, and literature, and she became supervisor of the campus library. Her legacy of groundbreaking administrative work began when she founded and edited two publications, Service and the Tuskegee Messenger newspaper, which carried the Institute's message of self-help to African American farm families in the surrounding rural communities. Bolden Walcott also contributed articles about civic, social, and Institute activities to African American newspapers such as the California Eagle and the Detroit Tribune.

In 1918, Bolden Walcott and fellow members of the Tuskegee Women's Club cofounded the Tuskegee Institute's all-black Red Cross Chapter. The Tuskegee Women's Club was a member of the Alabama Federation of Colored Women's Clubs and an affiliate of the oldest national organization of black women in America, the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC), founded in 1896. Like their national and state counterparts, Tuskegee Women's Club members worked to dispel false stereotypes of black female immorality that were commonly held by white mainstream society since slavery. Tuskegee Women's Club members engaged in charitable activities and presented educational and cultural programs to uplift black women, youth, and children of all social classes. The Tuskegee Red Cross Chapter provided disaster relief and emergency aid during the Great Depression. Bolden Walcott led the chapter's work of recruiting women volunteers to sew and mend garments they distributed with food and supplies locally during natural disasters, economic downturns, and public health crises.

Bess and William Walcott During World War II, Bolden Walcott took on public speaking engagements to promote the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen. Her initial encounter with the Airmen occurred after her notable appointment as the first black female acting field director of the Red Cross in the United States, from 1941-1942. In 1941, she led the Tuskegee Chapter in providing social services to the cadets and also mobilized community and campus volunteers to plan and offer social events for them, who otherwise had no social outlets because of racial segregation. In 1946, Bolden Walcott was again appointed U.S. acting field director. From 1946-47, she led the Tuskegee chapter in assisting returning World War II veterans with re-entry to civilian life, offering aid to veterans who pursued educational and housing benefits provided by the G.I. Bill and to those hospitalized at the Veteran's Hospital in Tuskegee. In the decades following the 1867 ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, which conferred legal citizenship to African Americans, racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws and customs deprived them of their full citizenship rights. In response, many African American civilians, including Tuskegee's Red Cross volunteers, joined with black men who served in the U.S. military in demonstrating patriotism. They hoped to be acknowledged by law and by white society as full citizens through their show of allegiance to a national and international audience. The British Embassy in Washington, D.C., recognized the Tuskegee Red Cross Chapter with a certificate of appreciation for service it had rendered to war-torn communities in the United Kingdom from 1939 to 1945.

Bolden Walcott's 33-year career with the Red Cross overlapped with ample volunteer service to Tuskegee health organizations. From 1940-1950, she served as executive secretary of Tuskegee Institute's chapter of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (present-day March of Dimes). During her tenure, the chapter received funding to open a regional center at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital. The center was the only facility in the southeast that served black adults and children with polio. Bolden Walcott raised funds to cover medical costs for indigent polio patients who could not afford to pay for treatment. She served as executive secretary of the Mental Hygiene Society from 1940-1951 and helped to establish the first mental health clinic in Tuskegee.

Notably, Bolden Walcott was curator of the George Washington Carver Museum from 1951 until 1962, when she retired after more than 50 years at Tuskegee. Following a 1947 fire at the museum, she took on the monumental job of salvaging, organizing, and conserving Carver's papers and artwork, actions that later contributed to the National Park Service's recognition of the Tuskegee Institute as a National Historic Site in 1965. In her community life, Bolden Walcott belonged to the Tuskegee chapter of the NAACP and to the St. Andrew's Episcopal Church Women's Auxiliary, which promoted church missions and Bible education. She served as the auxiliary's Christian education secretary in 1954 and as its president from 1956 to 1958.

In 1961, Who's Who of American Women included Bolden Walcott in its annual edition along with Ivy O. Brooks, a Tuskegee Institute physician, and Vera C. Foster, administrator for the Tuskegee Veteran's Administration Medical Center. The following year, Bolden Walcott founded the Tuskegee branch of the Women's International League of Peace and Freedom, an interracial women's group that initially formed to oppose the First World War and later worked to promote disarmament, and served as its U.S. vice president. From 1964-1965, Bolden Walcott served as a consultant for a project to establish the Tubman Centre of African Culture in the nation of Liberia to honor and promote William Tubman, Liberia's nineteenth president.

Despite racism and segregation, Bolden Walcott forged a successful professional career until her death on April 18, 1988, in Tuskegee at the age of 101. In 2003, she was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame for her life of exemplary civic service and her achievements on behalf of Tuskegee Institute.

Further Reading

  • Bess Bolden Walcott Papers, Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama.
  • Gebhard, Caroline. "Bess Bolden Walcott: A Legacy of Leadership at Tuskegee Institute." In Alabama Women: Their Lives and Times, edited by Susan Youngblood Ashmore and Lisa Lindquist Door, pp. 222-238. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017.
  • Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill. Votes for Women!: The Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee, the South, and the Nation. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

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