Lester A. Walton’s name surfaced recently during all the promos and announcements about the revival of “Shuffle Along,” an all-Black musical often considered the springboard for the Harlem Renaissance. Walton, then employed at the New York Age, was among the journalists at performances in 1921, when the production premiered at the 63rd Street Theater, or Music Hall, in Manhattan.
That Walton, whose resume is chocked with accomplishments, would be at such an event was more than a concern for documenting a breakthrough. His affiliation with theater was a long-standing endeavor that began in his hometown of St. Louis, Mo., where he was born April 20, 1882.
A graduate of Sumner High School, Walton received an honorary master’s degree from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and two others, including one from the University of Liberia in 1958.
Walton’s journalistic journey began at the St. Louis Star, where his part-time beat was the golf links. By 1902, he became the first African-American full-time reporter for the Star, mainly covering the city’s courts.
Four years later, he moved to New York City and was hired by the New York Age as its theatrical editor and manager. The job there at a paper owned by Fred Moore was an opportunity to meet the publisher’s daughter, Gladys Moore, and they married in 1912. His tenure at the Age would consist of three stints, and the second would be from 1917 -1919. At the same time, he was also submitting articles to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, thereby continuing his connection with his hometown.
It was in St. Louis that Walton launched his theater ventures. He collaborated with the legendary Earnest Hogan, an early Black minstrel, on several songs. Hogan would be instrumental in Walton’s ongoing affiliation with the world of entertainment, so much so that from 1917 – 1919, he was the director of the Lafayette Theater.
From 1922 – 1931, Walton was a special writer for the New York World. When that paper closed, he joined the New York Herald Tribune, but he quit the paper after they refused to give him a byline. In 1931, he was back at the New York Age as associate editor.
His involvement in world affairs began in 1919, when he attended the Versailles Peace Conference as a correspondent. Years before, Walton’s activism was noted when he became a strong advocate for the capitalization of the word “Negro.” The journalistic prominence and his political connections were pivotal to his next step into the world of diplomacy. A subsequent visit to Liberia in 1933 and a series of articles for several publications secured him the recognition he needed to be appointed an envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Liberia in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
As a dean of the diplomatic corps, Walton arrived at his post during a contentious period in Liberia’s history, but he helped calm things and facilitate the flow of resources from the African nation to the U.S. This accomplishment would be of particular importance during World War II.
After World War II, Walton continued his journalistic career and served as an arbitrator in the labor relations dispute between the Newspaper Guild of New York and the New York Amsterdam News from 1957 to 1959. Along with this activity, he was an honored member of the Silurians, an association of journalists.
Meanwhile, he remained the ambassador to Liberia for more than a decade, and even after his resignation, he continued as an advisor to the Liberian delegation to the U.S. in 1948-49.
Interwoven throughout Walton’s journalistic, political and diplomatic engagements was his abiding interest in theater and the entertainment realm. As mentioned above, his arrival in New York City, and principally in Harlem, placed him right in the epicenter when he became the director of the Lafayette Theater, the only theater in the community at that time catering to an integrated audience. He was not only the theater’s director but also the company’s songwriter and promoter, and he wrote reviews for the various productions.
He became so proficient in these elements of the theater that with the outbreak of World War I, he was requested to supervise productions for African-American troops. Later, he was elected vice president of the Negro Actors’ Guild and in the 1950s became chairman of the Coordinating Council for Negro Performers. In this capacity, he oversaw the integration of Blacks into every facet of the media.
None of these administrative duties and responsibilities interfered with his musical creativity. His lyrics and direction were critical in such productions as Joe Jordan’s “Rufus Rastus,” starring his friend Ernest Hogan, and there were several collaborations with the noted composer Will Marion Cook, including “Black Bohemia” in 1911.
The ubiquitous Walton was also a key player at the dawn of the recording industry. In 1922, he was a touring manager for Harry Pace’s Black Swan Troubadours. No doubt he was by Pace’s side when Black Swan records debuted with songs by Mamie Smith. Among his most popular compositions were “Welcome to New York,” a song dedicated to Mayor Robert Wagner, and “Jim Crow Got to Go,” which was often sang during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.
When Walton walked the streets of Harlem where he lived, he was often accompanied by a host of well-wishers and admirers. Many of them sought his influence in a variety of community issues, particularly because he was a member of the Commission on Intergroup Relations, a city agency. He was a trusted confidant of Wagner and worked extensively for Harlem in the realm of housing and community relations.
In 1964, Walton retired from much of his work with the city and a year later, on Oct. 16, he died. His wife, Gladys, died in 1977.