By Thea Tjepkema
Dramatic soprano Helen Walker King (1898-1957) was an important Black voice in Cincinnati during the first half of the 20th century as a highly regarded singer, public school teacher, and leader advocating for vocal and choral music. Lovingly referred to as “Cincinnati’s soloist,” she was featured in numerous concerts, recitals, and events in churches, clubs, and major venues such as the Emery Auditorium and Music Hall. She was also heard on Cincinnati radio stations WLW and WKRC.
Most notably, King was a founder of the “Negro Folk Song Festival” in 1932, including an African American choir of more than 200 members who performed in Eden Park. The festival, which hosted annual concerts, was the progenitor of the legendary June Festival, held annually between 1938 and 1952. Helen, her sister Breta, their parents Rev. J. Franklin and Hattie Walker, and Helen’s husband Rev. Charles N. King were among the most influential Black Cincinnatians of their time. Their contributions to the quality of life in Cincinnati still resonate today.
EDUCATOR & VOCALIST
Helen Cooper Walker grew up in Cincinnati’s West End (on W. Eighth St. and W. Ninth Ave.) loving music and singing in her father’s nearby Baptist church choir.She graduated from Woodward High School in 1917 and received an B.A. (A.B.) in education from the University of Cincinnati (U.C.) in 1921.
In the summer of 1924, Helen attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, studying voice with prestigious tenor Clarence B. Shirley, who also taught fellow Cincinnatian Nadine Roberts Waters.
Helen was devoted to her life in education, teaching at Frederick Douglass Elementary public school for more than 25 years between 1922 and 1955.
She was the first female and youngest trustee of Wilberforce University from 1926-1929. Appointed by the Governor of Ohio to represent Hamilton County, her board leadership of the Combined Normal (teacher training) and Industrial Department meant traveling to five meetings a year in Wilberforce, Ohio, during her three-year appointment.
At 21-years-old she moved with her parents and younger sister, Breta, from downtown into their home in Walnut Hills at 3240 Beresford Avenue (razed).
THE ACCOMPLISHED WALKER FAMILY
FATHER: REV. JUNIUS FRANKLIN WALKER (1873-1957)
At seven years old, Helen moved to Cincinnati with her parents and sister from Indianapolis, Indiana, having lived in several towns where her father was a successful preacher; including Trenton, New Jersey, where she was born on Christmas Day in 1898. In 1905, her father, Reverend J. (Junius) Franklin Walker, was appointed pastor at Zion Baptist Church downtown Cincinnati at 430 W. Ninth (razed). In 1914, he became pastor for 43 years of the Metropolitan Baptist Church until his death. Metropolitan Baptist’s congregation first met in a storeroom at 124 E. Fourth Street, loaned by J.G. Schmidlapp.
Rev. Walker was instrumental in organizing more than 300 members to purchase the Adath Israel Jewish Synagogue in the West End on the northeast corner of Ninth and Cutter streets (razed), which became the new home of Metropolitan Baptist Church on December 10, 1916 (thereafter listed as Metropolitan Baptist Temple in city directories).
Junius Franklin Walker’s parents died before he turned eight years old. He took night classes at the Y.M.C.A. high school in Richmond, Virginia and at the preparatory department of the Virginia Baptist Seminary in Lynchburg, while working as a cooper during the day. He studied teaching and theology at Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., and with a scholarship from the Pennsylvania Baptist Board of Education finished a three-year degree at Temple University in Philadelphia. He first preached at the Fifth Street Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, and was ordained at the Shiloh Baptist Church, Trenton, New Jersey, in 1898, where he served for eleven months. He successfully built the congregation and a new church in McDonald, Pennsylvania, before he accepted the pastorate of the First Baptist Church in Chillicothe, Ohio, in March 1901. In 1902, he received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Guadalupe College in Seguin, Texas. From 1903 to 1905, Rev. J. Franklin Walker led the Corinthian Baptist Church, Indianapolis, Indiana, before moving to Cincinnati.
Who’s Who Among the Colored Baptists of the United States declared Walker was brilliant at finances and real estate transactions, paying off the fifty-year mortgage of Zion Baptist Church and owning several valuable properties in Cincinnati. In August of 1918, Rev. J. Franklin Walker attended the National Negro Business League in Atlantic City, New Jersey and The New York Age described him as having an air of culture and refinement. This Black newspaper article about the business convention mentions his wife’s battle with indigestion and his patented cure – Walker’s Dyspepsia Compound.
His product was made and sold at 1023 (W. Ninth) Cincinnati, Ohio, his home address, and in New York (wholesale or retail) at Dr. Eisenbud & Co., 478 Lenox Ave, Harlem. Walker’s business had sold over 6,000 bottles in 1918, the second year on the market. In real estate Rev. Walker owned $40,000 worth in property values.
Rev. Walker supported his church and was a trustee of the American Baptist Seminary in Nashville. He was vice-president of the National Baptist Convention. He also organized the first Ohio Baptist State Convention in 1919 as its first president and was elected president emeritus in 1954 by a membership of 300 churches. Metropolitan Baptist was an important gathering place for Cincinnati’s Black community, hosting several recitals, revivals, and political rallies with prominent soloists and speakers. According to The Cincinnati Post, Harry Clay Smith of Cleveland, a Black gubernatorial candidate that the Republican Party refused to place on the ballot, spoke there in 1922. At the National Association of Colored Women convention (N.A.C.W.) held in the Metropolitan Baptist Church in 1954, Maxwell M. Rabb, counsel to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, read Mrs. Mamie Eisenhower’s address praising the late N.A.C.W.’s first president Mary Church Terrell. In 1947, the highly respected Rev. J. Walker was presented $2,000 for his years of service from the Ohio board of the state convention to attend the World Baptist Alliance meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark.
MOTHER: HATTIE (HARRIET) R. BROWN (1877-1972)
Harriet Brown grew up in Philadelphia, where her father, Robert, was the first African American policeman and served 27 years. In 1898, Hattie R. Brown married Junius Franklin Walker in Philadelphia, where they may have met, both studying at Temple University. Mrs. Walker attended the University of Cincinnati as a "special student" states her biography in Dabney's Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens. She later took courses in School Library Administration at Columbia University in New York. Cincinnati directories list her as a milliner at their home. She was active in her husband’s church, where she played piano. She was a teacher at the Harriet Beecher Stowe School (635 W. Seventh St.) where founder Jennie Porter was the principal (1914-1936). In 1922, Hattie Walker became Cincinnati’s first Black public librarian at the main branch. Two years later, she transferred to the Harriet Beecher Stowe branch located in the school and worked there until retiring in 1948. She was active on the Y.M.C.A. management board and chair of its religious education committee for three terms and founded the regional Interdenominational Wives of Ministers Association.
In 1965, Hattie Walker was selected as “Woman of the Year” for the Beta Zeta Zeta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority. She lived at their home in Walnut Hills until 1959 and then moved to Madisonville (5062 Anderson Place).
HELEN’S SISTER: BRETA A. WALKER GRANNUM (1902-1991)
Breta followed in Helen’s footsteps, attending Woodward High School, receiving a B.A. from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1924 and a Bachelor of Education in 1925 from U.C., then becoming a public-school teacher at Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass Elementary in Walnut Hills. In 1922 Helen was vice president of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority at U.C. and organized a play called “Everywoman,” which both she and Breta performed in at Hughes High School. Breta and Helen were founding members of the Sigma Omega Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority, chartered by six Cincinnati women on December 18, 1924. Breta married Rev. Stanley E. Grannum (1891-1951), in 1931, a pastor in Cleveland, Ohio, and president of Samuel Huston College and Chair of the theology department at Gammon Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. Breta’s obituary notes she died in her home in Madisonville and was musical like her sister – “known for her piano playing.” The Walker family is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.
HELEN MARRIES REVEREND CHARLES NEWTON KING (1896-1975)
In Cincinnati on November 16, 1927, Helen C. Walker married veteran Colonel Charles Newton King, whose occupation is listed as “chemist” on their marriage license. Reverend W.A. (Wilber Allen) Page of Union Baptist Church officiated. King graduated from Fisk University, magna cum laude in 1917, receiving a B.A. in science with a focus in agriculture, and delivered a commencement address. He registered for the draft while living in Chicago and served in WWI for ten months (June 1918-March 1919) before moving to Cincinnati in 1927. The city directory lists King as secretary for the Supreme Life Insurance Company during his first year in Cincinnati. He was a principal of South Woodlawn School before it became subsumed by the Lockland School District in 1938. His dismissal caused a strike by 390 African American students. He went on to earn a master’s degree in education from the University of Cincinnati Teachers’ College in 1940. King was the editor of the African American newspapers the Cincinnati Call & Post (1943-1945) and publisher and co-editor of the Cincinnati Voice (1944-1953). In 1942, King became the assistant pastor of his father-in-law’s Metropolitan Baptist Church for 13 years. When Helen became sick, he worked and then moved to Frankfort, Kentucky, to become the pastor of the First Corinthian Baptist Church from 1951 until his death in 1975.* He was the first African American to serve and hold office as second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention and vice president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
THE HELEN & CHARLES N. WALKER HOME
Charles and Helen King lived their first two years of marriage in the Walker family home and in 1929 moved into their own home at 3042 Bathgate Street (razed), where they lived for 25 years. In 1950, The Union noted Mrs. Helen Walker King was “still in the hospital, but much better,” and she retired from teaching in 1955. Her obituary in 1957 reported she had finally succumbed to the illness she had for several years.