Walker, Lillian (1913-2012)

  • By Kate Kershner
  • Posted 8/29/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9912

Lillian Walker was an African American civil rights activist in the Bremerton area. Raised in rural Illinois, Walker went on to Chicago to pursue nursing, and moved to Bremerton in 1941 with her husband James Walker, a navy shipyard worker. The Walkers established the local NAACP branch and took part in numerous protests to desegregate Kitsap County. Walker was also a founding board member of the YWCA in Bremerton. Walker remained active in the Bremerton community and in the Democratic Party until her death at age 98.

Illinois Girlhood

Lillian (Allen) Walker was born in a run-down shack in rural Carrier Mills, Illinois, on October 2, 1913. Her parents, Moses and Hazel Allen, were both of mixed race. The 20-acre farm the Allens lived on provided most of Moses' living as a farmer, although he worked as a coal miner occasionally. The Allens had 11 children, only five of whom lived past a young age.  

Lillian Walker's parents' backgrounds are a bit hazy, but the family lore that Lillian recalled is fascinating. Her paternal grandmother, Elvira Allen, was supposedly the granddaughter of a Tennessee slave-owner, a product of mixed long-term union of the plantation owner's daughter and a Portuguese man who worked on the plantation. (As John C. Hughes notes in his oral history of Lillian Walker, calling the man "Portuguese" could've been an attempt to sanitize the stigma of a white woman carrying on a relationship with any non-white man.) The slave-owner, the story goes, threatened to sell his daughter's mixed-race children into slavery, upon which the couple fled with their family to Illinois.

Life on the farm was predictably difficult. With no electricity or running water, Lillian and her siblings were responsible for chopping firewood, taking care of the farm animals, and working in the fields. But her parents were also insistent that she trudge barefoot to school every day.

"We didn't play hooky," Walker recalled of her parents' insistence on a rigorous education. "And in my family if you got a whipping at school, you got a whipping at home" (Hughes). The two-room school house held grades one through eight, and pictures taken while Walker attended show a mixed-race group of rural children.

The racial makeup of the school didn't cause much conflict, according to Walker: "When I was child, the teachers did not treat us any different than they treated the white kids" (Tucker). Walker did note that in third grade, she and her brothers were the only black children in the school. The only incident she related was from that time, when a young white schoolmate called her an epithet. Walker, not one to shy away from a challenge, promptly hit her in the face. (However, Walker was also not one to shy away from forgiveness; the girl went on to become her best friend.)

Walker excelled in school, and was called "exceptional" by her teachers (Hughes). Her mother Hazel, who had been left illiterate at a young age by a head injury, encouraged her daughter's academic achievement. At night, Lillian would read aloud to her mother as she bustled around the kitchen.

After Walker graduated from Carrier Mills High School, the Depression was in full swing and college was out of the question. Because she had dreamed of becoming a doctor, she decided to pursue a nursing career. She started working at a sanatorium in Harrisburg, Illinois, after graduation and took correspondence classes in nursing.

Moving to Bremerton and Marrying James

In 1937, Walker moved to Chicago to live with her aunt. She met James Walker, a musician. Lillian was not, however, interested in the swinging lifestyle a saxophonist on the road would provide. "I'm not going to marry a musician, I'll starve to death," Lillian recalled saying to James as they got serious (Hughes). He assured he was looking for more stable work, and found some in the Northwest. His mother was living in Seattle, and in 1940 he scraped together work laboring at an Army storage depot and joining the Merchant Marines. Lillian came not long after, and worked as domestic help. The Walkers were married on June 20, 1941, and soon James had found steady employment working in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton.

To say Bremerton was booming in the early 1940s is an understatement; from 1940 to 1944, the 15,000 population of the town had quintupled to 75,000. As the population grew, the makeup of the people also changed. In 1940, only 100 black people were listed as residents of the city, but with the military's hiring policy (at the time more welcoming to minorities than civilian contractors), the number grew to 4,600 by 1944.

A White Supremacist Town

Unfortunately, the change in racial makeup wasn't accompanied by a change in attitude. Lillian Walker remembered Bremerton at the time a a "white supremacist town," vastly different from the tolerant and equitable atmosphere of Illinois (Hughes). Reports of black men being denied service, insulted, or assaulted were widespread. Not long after James and Lillian arrived in Bremerton, James was told by a barber that he would cut Walker's hair only after closing time, with the shades drawn. Lillian, livid, found herself in the role of barber for James from that moment on, refusing to keep their presence in the community a secret.

Lillian and James Walker were not quiet in the face of this kind of bullying, and joined the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to protect their rights and fight for others. James became the second president of the Bremerton branch, and Lillian became secretary.

Lillian Walker was instrumental in several of the NAACP's protests in the Bremerton area during the 1940s. Walker was having lunch with a white friend in a Bremerton cafe one day when the waitress served her friend and ignored her. When Walker demanded the waitress's boss, the woman called the police and claimed she had a "race riot" on her hands (Hughes).

Bremerton police chief Art Morken was roundly approved of in the black community, and when he got to the scene he saw that Lillian Walker wasn't a threat to cause a mob. After a meeting with church leaders, NAACP members, and the owner of the restaurant, the "Whites Only" sign was removed from the cafe's window.

Fighting Racism

After the war, Bremerton's population plunged as 22,000 people left when navy contracts dried up. The Walkers decided to stay on, as they were committed to the community. In 1947, Lillian and several of her friends become founding board members of the YWCA of Bremerton, which opened a year later.

But the civil rights battles were not yet over. In 1954, James Walker attempted to buy a cup of coffee from a drug store in Bremerton. The owner took a look at him and said, "I didn't serve niggers in Texas, and I'll go to hell before I serve them here" (Hughes).

The Walkers and their NAACP chapter were not amused. After conferring with Philip Burton (1915-1995), a prominent civil rights attorney in Seattle, James and another black men went back again, asking to be served. When they were refused, Burton filed a complaint that Walker's civil rights were violated. Although they received threatening phone calls and were harassed, the Walkers refused to drop the case until the druggist settled and agreed to serve all.

Citizens of the Community

The Walkers, who by now had two children, were prominent not just in the civil rights community, but in the close-knit Bremerton as well. They held part-time janitorial jobs at the bank and theater to make ends meet, and they also worked part-time as business managers with the Northwest Enterprise, the black-owned newspaper in Seattle. They were in the PTA, volunteered for Boy Scouts with their son and Campfire Girls with their daughter, and were devoted to their church, Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal.

"I was the secretary of the Sunday School. I've been on the Trustees' Board, and I've been on the Steward Board, and I've been the president of the Missionary Society," Walker recounted (Hughes). She may well have been correct when she said she'd been everything but the minister.

Lillian remained active as she grew older. She was an officer in the Bremerton Garden Club, and extremely active in the Kitsap County Democratic Party. She was a founding board member of the Carver Civic Club, a local chapter of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. She was appointed to the Regional Library Board, and served on the Kitsap County Area Agency on Aging Advisory Council.

Citizens of the Century

In 1997, Kitsap County's Martin Luther King Memorial Scholarship Fund Committee named James and Lillian Walker "MLK Citizens of the Century," in honor of their combined 100 years of community service. She was been given a Founder's Award by the YWCA, a Golden Acorn by the PTA, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Democratic Party. She also received the Liberty Bell Award from the Kitsap County Bar Association, an award presented by the state Attorney General.

James Walker died in 2000, at the age of 89. They were married for 59 years, and Lillian didn't regret a minute: "If I had searched the world over I couldn't have found a better mate" (Hughes).

Lillian Walker continued to live in Bremerton and remained active in her many causes until her death at the age of 98 in January 2012.  


Sources: John C. Hughes, "Lillian Walker: Civil Rights Pioneer," Washington Secretary of State Legacy Project Oral Histories website accessed August 2011 (http://www.sos.wa.gov/legacyproject/oralhistories/lillianwalker/); John C. Hughes interview with Lillian Walker, June 8-9, 2009, transcript available online (http://www.sos.wa.gov/legacyproject/oralhistories/lillianwalker/pdf/complete.pdf); Cynthia Tucker, "Interview with Mrs. Lillian Walker," Washington Women's History Consortium website accessed August 2011 (http://www.washingtonwomenshistory.org/about/participants/localgrants/tcw/walker.aspx); Rachel Pritchett, "YWCA at 60: From Social Outlet to Providing Vital Social Work," The Kitsap Sun, August 9, 2008 (http://www.kitsapsun.com/news/2008/aug/09/ ywca-at-60-from-social-outlet-to-performing-work/); Brynn Grimley, "Exhibition, Presentation Looks at Segregation, Civil Rights in Kitsap," The Kitsap Sun, February 5, 2009 (http://www.kitsapsun.com/news/2009/feb/05/exhibit-presentation-looks-at-segregation-civil/).
Note: This essay was updated on January 2, 2013.

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