Vincent A. Walker: Black, White, or Passing?
The term passing has made its way back into our modern vocabulary thanks in part to Netflix producing a film based on the 1929 novel of the same name. The act of passing has historically been described as a black, brown, or multiracial individual who can be accepted into a white racial group due to having light-skinned features. The practice of passing was a way to avoid racial segregation and the stereotypes that plagued society. In the 1930s, if one could pass as white, they would be more likely to get a good job, rent an apartment in a good part of town, or even receive a loan to buy a home. Vincent Walker was likely aware of these conditions when he immigrated from Jamaica to Canada, and then to Poughkeepsie in May of 1927. He referenced his race as “West Indian” rather than “Black” on his naturalization papers, which later translated to “White” on all of his documents.
Vincent Alexander Walker was born in St. Ann’s in Jamaica on April 19, 1902. He and his mother (who wrote on her naturalization papers that she was “African black”) immigrated to Toronto, Canada in 1920, before venturing into the U.S. to Buffalo in 1920. They stayed there for a while before he made his way to Poughkeepsie in 1927, where he hoped to improve his health at the Bowne Memorial Hospital. He remained in the hospital for several years as a patient (he must have suffered from tuberculosis, as that was the hospital’s main focus) and eventually became an employee. He began as the editor of the hospital’s monthly newsletter The Tempstick, almost as soon as he arrived. Later on, as Walker displayed his writing skills, he added several of his poems to the newsletter.
Walker also had a talent for illustration and in 1930 he won several contests for art designs on book jackets, including some for the Everyman’s Library series and the one on the right for Leslie MacFarlane’s mystery Streets of Shadow. It should come as no surprise that he befriended a fellow artist and admirer of poetry, Thomas Barrett. Thomas hired him on as a model from time to time; we can see in the gallery some photographs of Walker posing for a series of murals that Barrett created. The two quickly became close and Walker spent many days in the studio at 55 Noxon Street working alongside Barrett on various art projects. The two men worked on the big art exhibition of 1934 at Luckey Platt’s department store where Walker’s drawing entitled “Pneumothorax” was said to prove that Walker was “a master in the depiction of the grotesque.”
Walker also became quite close with Barrett’s sister Betty, who he referred to as “Elizabeth the Queen.” In one letter written by Walker to Betty in July of 1940, he urged her to “conserve your own energy” as she had been fighting with Thomas over his abuse of alcohol. Walker eloquently tried to convince her, “as for the alcohol itself, he usually is not so bad–He probably drinks a good deal less than hundreds of successful business and professional men right here in dear old Pok (Poughkeepsie), the real problem as I see it is his apparent reluctance or inability to assume certain responsibilities.” Sadly, Walker was unaware of how much Thomas had been suffering and that alcohol would aid in his early death.
Walker continued to do well as an administrator at the Bowne Hospital where he lived and all of the census records have him marked as “W” for race. Interestingly, the woman who filled out his draft card at the start of WWII didn’t believe him when she asked about his race. You can see on the card where she instinctively checked “Negro” but then crossed it out. She also crossed out the words that she must have previously written, “none to my knowledge” under the question asking if she believed the person had made any false statements to the questions above, she then wrote, “Man impresses me as being Negro.” She clearly wasn’t the only one who felt that way as not everyone was welcoming to Walker in the community. He admitted to Thomas Barrett in a letter saying “through you and your family and home I reached the only integration I ever felt in the community.”
He fell in love with Brita DeCormier, a white woman from a middle-class family who worked in the art department at Western Publishing. Like Walker, she was also an artist and joined the Dutchess County Arts Association. The two planned to marry in 1946 and Walker explained to Barrett in a letter how challenging it all was, “This premarital period is something rather dreadful and we are doing things with stark simplicity. I shudder to contemplate the sort of thing one reads of in papers. Just wrangling an apartment and telephone took our combined diplomatic and pirate talents.” This tells us that while New York didn’t criminalize interracial marriages like some states, not everyone was comfortable with allowing them.
This didn’t stop Walker and DeCormier from living a very happy life as they worked and painted together here in Poughkeepsie. They remained together until Walker died in 1985. It is an unfortunate part of our history that a talented man felt that he needed to deny part of who he was and tread the sketchy waters of cultural assimilation in order to succeed. It makes one wonder how many others in our area were forced to do the same.
Thomas Barrett Collection – Boxes 3, 10, Letters from Vincent A. Walker. LH Collection
Bowne Memorial Hospital – Box 362.11 B, Miscellaneous Pamphlets. LH Collection
New York State Naturalization Papers – Ancestry.com
WWII Draft Cards Young Men – 1940-1947 – Ancestry.com
Poughkeepsie Eagle News – 23 Apr 1930, 13 Oct 1934, 13 Oct 1946
Findagrave.com – Vincent A. Walker
VincentAWalker – Photo of Vincent A. Walker from his naturalization papers.
Vincentwalker-1930dustjacket – The cover art that Vincent Walker designed for ‘Streets of Shadow’ in 1930.
Vincent-model – A photo of Vincent Walker modeling for Thomas Barrett’s mural work.
Vincentwalker-WWII-2 – Part of Vincent Walker’s WWII draft papers.
Vincentwalker-woodblockprint – A woodblock print made by Vincent Walker.