Bess Bolden Walcott
Bess Bolden Walcott (1886-1988) assumed a leadership role in academics as well as in a wide range of civic affairs: local, national, and international. She spent the majority of her 101 years in Alabama. She arrived in 1908 upon graduation from Oberlin College, having been recruited by Booker T. Washington to help him organize his library. During her long tenure at Tuskegee Institute (1908-1962), she served in many capacities, including librarian, teacher, writer, editor, administrator, and curator. In addition to her distinguished academic service to one of Alabama’s most historic institutions of higher learning, she served her state and nation in ways that merit recognition in the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame. She helped establish a Red Cross chapter at Tuskegee Institute at a time when many doubted black Americans could significantly contribute to the nation’s defense. Yet, she became the nation’s first black female Acting Field Director for the American Red Cross, demonstrating exemplary leadership. In addition to her outstanding public service through the Red Cross, she also helped conserve Tuskegee Institute’s unique historic legacy. A close friend as well as a long-time colleague of Dr. George Washington Carver, she served as curator for the Carver Museum (1951-1962). Her pioneering work in gathering and conserving materials of historic and artistic significance, including Carver’s correspondence and artwork, helped preserve and document the pivotal role Tuskegee has played in Alabama’s and the nation’s history. Her contributions helped pave the way for Tuskegee Institute’s recognition as a National Historic Site in 1965. In the 1970s, she gave significant support to the National Park Service’s restoration of the Oaks, the home of Booker T. Washington.
In 1918 she became a founding member of the Tuskegee Institute Chapter of the American Red Cross, serving as its Executive Secretary for more than thirty years. During her long and extraordinary service, Mrs. Walcott not only directed customary activities of the Red Cross, but she also sought ways to serve the community above and beyond the call of duty. In 1924, Tuskegee’s Red Cross Chapter opened a Health Center—one of the first in the South—staffed by a Public Health Nurse. During the Great Depression, the Chapter, under Mrs. Walcott’s energetic administration, received a grant from the national Red Cross to distribute food and supplies to black farm families in need. Perhaps her most distinguished service came in the World War II era, when she became the first black woman to serve as a Red Cross Acting Field Director. During her time in this position (1941-42), the Tuskegee Army AirField, where the famed Tuskegee Airmen trained, was opened. In 1942, she not only continued her service to the Red Cross but also was appointed Director of Public Relations at the Institute (1942-46) where she promoted the war effort, most notably through her press releases, which chronicled the progress of the Tuskegee Airmen. She also traveled and spoke extensively to promote the sale of War Bonds. She was re-appointed Acting Field director (1946-47) to help oversee the needs of returning veterans. She continued to help train Red Cross volunteers until 1951.
Mrs. Walcott’s last official position at the Institute was Curator of the Carver Museum (1951-62). In the period 1908-1962, she assisted Tuskegee’s first four presidents: Dr. Booker T. Washington, Dr. Robert R. Moton, Dr. Frederick D. Patterson, and Dr. Luther H. Foster.
At various times in her career, during the period of Tuskegee’s evolution from Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (1891-1937) to Tuskegee Institute (1937-1985), she taught English and literature. In 1924, she was also founder and editor of two of the main campus publications, The Tuskegee Messenger and Service. In 1936, as chairman of the 40th anniversary celebration committee on Dr. Carver’s work at Tuskegee, she spearheaded the drive to raise the funds necessary to commission Steffen Thomas to sculpt a bronze bust of Dr. Carver, which still stands today on the grounds in front of the Carver Museum. Through her stewardship, the Carver Museum was eventually able to become part of a national park site that draws countless visitors and indeed is ranked as one of the most visited sites in the State of Alabama.
Throughout her long and productive life, she was always concerned about the wellbeing of the community. She served as Executive Secretary of the Tuskegee Institute Chapter of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (1940-50). In 1942, the National Foundation provided funds to open the Tuskegee Institute Infantile Paralysis Center at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital, the only facility in the Southeast where black children and adults with polio could receive treatment for this disease. She also served as Executive Secretary of the Mental Hygiene Society (1940-51). The establishment of a Mental Health Clinic in Tuskegee was a direct outgrowth of the Mental Hygiene Society. She was a member of the NAACP and the Tuskegee Civic Association that helped bring an end to segregation in Macon county and Alabama. In 1962, she was elected the National Vice President of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and represented America as a delegate at its 15th Triennial Congress in San Francisco, California. She traveled to Liberia (1964-65) as a consultant to establish the Tubman Center for African Culture. While there, William V.S. Tubman, President of Liberia, awarded her the title of “Knight of the Humane Order, African Redemption.”
Born in Xenia, Ohio, on November 4, 1886, she married William H. Walcott in 1911, also a Tuskegee Institute instructor. She fore four children: Elizabeth A. (John Postell), Carolyn A. (Charles M. Ford), William H. (Clarice Robinson), and Frances A. (Frank P. Bolden). She left Alabama only briefly to return to Oberlin for post-graduate study in English (1930-31). She died on April 18, 1988, in Tuskegee, Alabama, not long before her 102nd birthday. Mrs. Walcotts’s long life of accomplishment and service provides an inspiring example for future generations