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Women to Remember

 

A'Lelia's great, great, grandmother is highlighted in my book, "They Persisted." A'Lelia's book, "On Her Own Ground:" is a rich and complete look at the life of Madam C.J. Walker, a well researched and beautifully written work. It is poignant look at Black history in the U.S.  A rewarding read. 

 

Just looking into her eyes, the  confident, passionate, determined, curious woman that she is shines through in greeting. This Network Television Producer and Executive, Journalist, Researcher, Writer, Historian and Public Speaker is also the great great grand daughter of the historic  trailblazer, business woman extraordinaire, Madam C. J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove. Upon researching Madam C.J. Walker's story, I could not help but grow more and more fascinated with A'Lelia Bundles: what was it like being part of such a remarkable legacy? So often, we hear about adults who cannot abide the pressure of their famous relative. They hide from, deny or cave under (what they perceive as) the burden of their birthright. I had to know how A'Lelia, named after her equally accomplished grandmother, felt. To my delight, she returned my telephone call, and here is how she answered my questions:

 

QBM: have you always known about your grandmother twice removed?

 

A'Lelia: One of my earliest memories, at 3 or 4 years old, is being in my grandmother's bedroom, discovering an ostrich feather fan and mother-of-pearl opera glasses that had belonged to Madam C. J. Walker and her daughter, A'Lelia Walker. The silverware that we used every day had Madam Walker's monogram, and the china as well as sterling silver punch bowl we used on special occasions belonged to her, also. 

 

My mother was Vice President of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis. I often visited her office where I would play on her adding machine and typewriter in the days before calculators and computers. So while I didn't know the significance of Madam Walker at the time, I do have early memories of her and of the Walker Company.

 

 

 Madam C. J. Walker (Photo Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

 

OBM: What is your first memory of learning about this woman, not just as Madam Walker but as Sarah?

 

A'Lelia: I don't remember exactly when I started to learn about Madam Walker as Sarah. During the mid-1970s while in journalism graduate school at Columbia University, I began to do serious research in primary source materials about Madam Walker. I started to learn more details about who she was beyond the superficial and mythical version of her story. Many people know her primarily as a pioneer of the modern hair care industry.What most impressed me, was her many dimensions as an entrepreneur, a marketing genius, an educator, a philanthropist, a patron of the arts, and a political activist. Madam Walker spoke out against racial discrimination, and helped fund the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign. 

 

Once I understood more details about her life as a washer woman, and (her) struggles in St. Louis during the 1890s and early 1900s, I had context for why she was such an advocate for women's economic independence and empowerment. She had been helped by the women of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church when she was a young widow, raising her child. In turn, once she became successful, she wanted to provide jobs for other women who faced the same challenges she had faced. She provided jobs for thousands of black women who otherwise would have been consigned to working as maids, cooks, laundresses and sharecroppers. When she held her first convention of her Walker sales agents in 1917, she gave prizes not just to the women who sold the most products, but, to those who gave the most to charity.

 

I also was glad to discover Madam Walker's friendships and interactions with people like Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, Booker T. Washington, James Weldon Johnson, Mary McLeod Bethune and other African American icons.

 

My extensive research allowed me to re-frame my understanding of American history by following her life from the Reconstruction Era through World War I. Of course, the history books of my childhood had omitted women and African Americans. By researching her life and the history that accompanied that life, I was able to write the book that I wish someone had written for me. 

 

"Develop your own talents, passions and interests. Be generous by assisting and mentoring others. Cultivate close friendships. Seek leadership roles in organizations that interest you but also know how to be a team player. Stay aware of current events and politics. Think for yourself. Vote. Start saving money as early as you can and develop a financial plan so that you can be financially secure."

 

"Develop your own talents, passions and interests. Be generous by assisting and mentoring others. Cultivate close friendships. Seek leadership roles in organizations that interest you but also know how to be a team player. Stay aware of current events and politics. Think for yourself. Vote. Start saving money as early as you can and develop a financial plan so that you can be financially secure."

 

 

                         Madam C. J. Walker driving her Model T

                 (Photo Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

 

QBM: What does it feel like - in your heart - to know you are of her? (Is it) stressful? Prideful? Obliged? Pressured? What are your thoughts on the topic of being her great great granddaughter? What was your mother/ grand mother's feelings toward her?

 

I feel fortunate to be able to share Madam Walker's story. My professional training as a journalist, gave me the expertise to do the research and writing that allows me to provide an accurate and credible account of her life. I'm also fortunate that my mother was wise enough to not pressure me about measuring myself by another person's accomplishments. I've always felt that I was supposed to follow my own dreams and interests. As it turns out, I was able to do that, and then was able to tell the story, not just of Madam Walker, but of her daughter, A'Lelia Walker -  a significant figure of the Harlem Renaissance. At this point, after more than four decades of telling the story, it's an absolute joy to inspire and empower others with their examples.

 

QBM: Please walk us through Madam C.J. Walker back on shelves, today.

 

A'Lelia: Richelieu Dennis, the CEO of Sundial Brands, was familiar with Madam Walker when he was growing up in Liberia. After Sundial's Shea Moisture and Nubian Heritage lines already were quite successful, he became interested in revitalizing a line of Madam Walker products. His goal was to combine the prestige, reputation and legacy of the Walker name with 21st century formulas as a way to reclaim an important part of African American heritage. 

 

Rich, who now owns Essence magazine, is a true visionary. He recently launched the New Voices Fund, a $100 million venture capital fund, to support women of color entrepreneurs. Now that the New Voices Foundation owns Madam Walker's estate, Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York, the NVF entrepreneurs will have an opportunity to convene at the home, from time to time. I am proud to be the brand historian for the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture hair care products line that was launched in March 2016, sold exclusively at Sephora.

 

QBM: Lastly, I am curious to know if your grandmother's legacy overshadows YOUR life?

 

A'Lelia: No, the legacy doesn't overshadow my life. As I said, my parents were wise enough to encourage me to develop my own talents. I have an entirely full life that is separate from my Madam Walker work. I serve on nonprofit boards and have always held leadership positions on those boards. I enjoyed a 30 year career as a network television news producer and executive. I'm fortunate to have been able to do many things. And I'm sure that those other life experiences made the writing and research about Madam Walker stronger. From my observation, people who live in the shadow of famous relatives or rely on those relatives for their identity don't get a chance to develop their own interests or talents. 

 

Of course I'm glad to have had the opportunity to tell Madam Walker's story. I am gratified for the contribution I could make on the many projects related to her story. Whether it was spearheading the campaign for a Madam Walker postage stamp in 1998 or working with the four-part Netflix series starring Octavia Spencer to air early 2020.

 

 

The upcoming Netflix drama is based on A'Lelia's book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. A must read we cannot wait to see on film.

 

Thank you, A'Lelia!

 

         

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