Alice Walker's early years

Parents and childhood

Alice Malsenior Walker was born in 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia in the deep south of the United States. Walker’s father was a sharecropper, a tenant farmer who supplied a share of the crops he grew to his landlord in place of rent, whilst her mother worked as a maid to help to support their eight children.

When Walker was eight years old, she suffered a serious injury when she was accidentally shot in the right eye with a pellet from a BB gun, while playing with two of her brothers. The scar tissue that formed in her damaged eye made her self-conscious and she became withdrawn and shy. Reading and writing poetry became her favourite pastimes and made her more thoughtful and studious.


Walker graduated from high school in 1961 as the school's valedictorian and prom queen and went on to study, with a state scholarship, at Spelman College in Atlanta Georgia, an all-black women’s college. During the two years Walker attended Spelman, she became active in the civil rights movement. She later transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in New York in 1963 where she studied literature, taking her degree in 1965.

On a study trip to Africa during her time at Sarah Lawrence, Walker became pregnant and had an illegal abortion on her return to the United States. Walker’s first published short story, ‘To Hell With Dying’, was written during her recovery from the depression and anxiety she experienced at that time. The story captured the attention of poet Langston Hughes, who included it in his 1967 anthology, The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers. Walker later wrote an acclaimed biography of Langston Hughes in 1974.

Relationships and marriage

After receiving her B.A. degree in 1965, Walker married Melvyn R. Leventhal, a white Jewish civil rights lawyer, and the couple decided to set up home in the South, living in the state of Mississippi from 1967 to 1974. Although they were man and wife, the marriage was nevertheless regarded as illegal under Southern law (because it was inter-racial) and Walker and her husband were subjected to a degree of racial harassment as a result.

The pair continued to be actively involved in the civil rights movement, fighting to end segregation and to guarantee voting rights for African-Americans. A daughter, Rebecca, was born in 1969 and the couple later divorced in 1976. Walker then relocated to San Francisco, having begun a relationship with Robert Allen, who edited an academic journal, The Black Scholar. With Allen, Walker later co-founded the feminist publishing company Wild Tree Press.

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