A’Lelia Bundles is the great, great granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker and as such has inherited Madam Walker’s legacy and a great responsibility.
As a journalist, author and public speaker, A’Lelia had a 30-year career as an executive and Emmy award winning producer with NBC and ABC News. And as a graduate of Harvard and Columbia Universities, she is more than qualified to preserve Madam Walker’s legacy in a meaningful and eloquent manner to a wide audience.
A’Lelia shared that she feels fortunate to have had parents who were highly educated entrepreneurs and who also had the insight to allow her to follow her own dreams. In spite of her ancestor, she was not burdened to carry her legacy on. A’Lelia followed her passion for writing and her choice to pursue a career as a journalist. As fate would have it, this led A’Lelia to her eventual calling to tell Madam’s story and to ensure Madam’s legacy. A’Lelia stated that Madam Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia Walker, adopted her grandmother, Mae, when she was 12 years old. Because of Mae’s long braids–and because Madam Walker’s main product was her “Wonderful Hair Grower”–Mae traveled with Madam Walker as a hair model. The Walker women groomed and educated Mae, a lovely young girl who went on to graduate from Spelman College. Her legal adoption ensured that there would be an heir to the Walker estate.
We talked at length of Madam Walkers’ deft skills in marketing her business. I was reminded that in homes at the turn of the century there were no televisions, few radios, and of course, no internet. Creating a following was not an easy task. Marketing meant not only going door to door, but traveling from city to city under harsh and dangerous racist conditions. Hotels would not take her in so she often relied upon letters of introduction for accommodations in the homes of prominent families.
So many black women were very poor and had no in-door plumbing, heating or running water. In many cases these women did not wash or groom their hair for months at a time, particularly during the cold season. In other words, Madam had to educate her potential customers, convince and then prove they too could have beautiful, healthy hair as she did by following her regime and using her line of products.
She was a savvy businesswoman who befriended the preachers and the black newspaper publishers in her travels. She placed ads in the papers of these publishers and the Pullman porters who traveled from city to city distributed those papers around the country, inadvertently helping Madam to market her business nationally. Contemporaries in the beauty industry at the time were Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden who surely weren’t marketing their products to black women.
Madam Walker had come a long way from having been an orphan (both her parents died when she was young), uneducated, and a sharecropper. She was 20 when she left Mississippi, a state where there was no free education and no opportunities to move to Indianapolis to join her three brothers who were barbers. She learned much from them and was taken in by the church community who offered her education and helped her get on her feet.
Indeed Madam Walker was a great business woman but why do we continue to look to her for inspiration? A’Lelia says it’s because of what she did with her money and her business. She gave many women the opportunity to become independent business women at a time when their only choices were to be maids or sharecroppers.
She was generous in sharing her philosophy about business and her financial gift of creating a pioneer work force and the philosophy of giving back. As such, Madam Walker was larger than life in the community, becoming a philanthropist, and a patron of the arts.
Having inherited this legacy, A’Lelia realized that no major biographies of Madam Walker had ever been published. She set out to write a book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. Now there are two Madam Walker books with a third about Walker’s daughter in the making. A’Lelia is grateful her grandmother, Mae, met Madam Walker and A’Lelia Walker when she did. Her family has lived this legacy for more than a century even incorporating everyday use of Madame Walker’s engraved fine silverware and fine china in their home.
A’Lelia inherited Madam’s archives, photographs, legal documents, jewelry, clothing letters, furniture and silver. And she honors Madam by telling her story and preserving this legacy in maintaining her two historical landmarks, which are the Madam Walker Theater Center in Indianapolis, which is also a cultural arts center and the Villa Lewaro a private estate in Westchester County, New York . She is on the board of directors of the Walker Theatre Center and is working with the current owners of Villa Lewaro on plans to open the home to the public. And just a few days ago, a memorial / Hoosier Legacy Pillar of Madam Walker was installed at the “Super Bowl Walk” in Indianapolis.
Eventually A’Lelia plans to donate Madam’s belongings (which she says now take up 2 rooms in her home) to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, under construction in Washington DC; and to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. A’Lelia also keeps Madam’s legacy alive through the Walker Family Archives, books, programs, two historic landmarks and affiliations with truly successful companies like Khamit Kinks, Carol’s Daughter , Jane Carter and others that are inspired by Madam Walker’s story.
It is a joy for A’Lelia to be able to share Madam Walker’s story and to witness today’s young entrepreneurs who carry on her legacy through their own business models.
Thank you A’Lelia for your insight and tenacity in upholding the important legacy of Madam CJ Walker.