Life Stories

Durham’s Alice Walker was a teacher, friend, pioneer of hand arts

CorrespondentMarch 3, 2013 

  • Alice Osment (Bates) Walker

    Born: Nov. 17, 1918 in Bradley County, Tenn.

    1940: Graduates with a bachelor of science degree in home economics from the University of Tennessee

    1942: Marries Tom Walker

    1944: First child is born

    1948: Moves to Durham

    1990: Widowed

    1994: Leaves the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood for a retirement community

    Died: Feb. 17, 2013 in Durham

The summer of 1950, on a particularly hot Fourth of July, Alice Walker had had enough of her children and their friends hanging around the house. The heat was making them ornery and bothersome. And in the hopes of stealing a bit of peace, she told them to have a little parade.

A dozen children marched one block down Club Boulevard and back. They enjoyed it so much they turned around and did it again.

And so was born the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood Independence Day parade. This July, the parade will take place on the same street for the 64th straight year. Much about it remains the same, said the current parade czar, Tom Miller.

The route is now two blocks, the street is blocked off (the original dozen children marched on their neighbor’s lawns), and a fire truck leads the way for as many as 1,000 marchers. But it remains a simple affair, where patriotic songs are sung and flags are flown, but no floats and marching bands take part.Walker died last month at age 94. She and her husband, Tom Walker, lived in Watts Hillandale for more than 40 years, raising five children there.

Alice Walker accomplished far more than starting a Durham tradition by suggesting a pastime for a houseful of children. After that first impromptu parade, Tom Walker took over its formal organization for years to come. Alice continued raising their brood, the youngest being twin girls, and emphasizing the things she valued in life – equality, kindness and self-reliance.

A maker of many things

“Mom was interested in making everything,” said daughter Susan Gardner of Apex. Walker had a keen ability to take natural resources and create something practical, whether canning and freezing fresh fruits and vegetables or fashioning belts from strips of raw leather. She sewed most of her children’s clothing and had a passion for building birdhouses. Well into her 80s, Walker could be seen swinging a sledgehammer as she pounded together the parts for homes for bluebirds.

In high school in Charleston, Tenn., Walker had an interest in taking shop. At the time, it was a class reserved for boys. The teacher, a Mr. Bettis (whose praises she would sing for decades to come), wrote to the state superintendent of public instruction to see if there was any reason a girl could not take his shop class, Gardner said.

Walker would make an entire bedroom set under Bettis’ instruction. Her father gave her $15, an enormous investment at the time, to purchase the black walnut that would become a double bed frame, dresser, nightstand and vanity – all of which are still being used by her family.

“She used that bedroom furniture when they got married,” Gardner said.

“She was definitely of the ‘use it up, wear it out, make do or do without’ [generation] of America,” said her youngest, Ann Walker.

Walker earned a bachelor of science degree in home economics from the University of Tennessee, after which she accepted a job as a home demonstration agent with the state. It was the 1940s, and Walker drove to all parts of Tennessee to teach folks the domestic arts of preserving fruits and even making their own mattresses.

Once she was married, she was no longer allowed to work as an agent. Her husband was the son of the circuit rider Methodist minister who tended to her family’s church.

The Walkers came to Durham so that Tom could earn a master’s degree in chemistry from Duke University, after which he accepted a job at Liggett & Myers.

They settled in the Watts Hillandale neighborhood. When the couple needed a larger home a few years later, they moved just a block down the street.

Walker sold the home in 1994 when, as a widow, she moved to a retirement community elsewhere in Durham. A large family later moved to her former home, which pleased her to no end.

“She was thrilled to pieces that that house was full of happy children,” Gardner said.

‘She loved teaching’

In the 1960s, Walker taught pregnant teens at a place called The Cooperative School, a facility on what is now the campus of the Durham School of the Arts. The job meant a lot to her because it allowed her to teach young women the skills they would need most as young mothers, such as sewing and cooking.

“She loved teaching. She loved being able to give something to somebody,” said her only son, Stuart Walker of Augusta, Ga. “She loved the light in their eyes when they got it.”

It was a progressive place to teach. Alice Walker had always strongly believed that everyone should be treated with kindness.

“Mom would never accept or allow us to treat anyone any less, no matter the color of their skin or the church they went to,” Stuart Walker said.

Gardner said: “Mom was unfailingly kind, and she never ignored waitresses or grocery clerks or anybody holding the door for her.”

The Walkers were both staunch Democrats, and she often volunteered during elections. They were also unfailingly patriotic – the parade meant more to them than a way to keep their children occupied on a hot summer day.

Walker was proud to let people know that she was a distant relative of Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote “America the Beautiful” – a song always sung at the parade.

A few years back, the neighborhood put a flagpole in Oval Park, the center of Watts Hillandale and the end point of the parade. It was dedicated to the Walkers.

The week Alice died, the flag was flown at half-mast, Tom Miller said. He plans to find a way to commemorate her further at this year’s parade.

In 63 years, the parade has never been rained out.

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