When I was growing up in New York City, the Madame C.J. Walker Company of Indianapolis was a glittering presence in my life and those of my two brothers and sister. We knew that the company, founded in 1901 by the first self-made American millionairess, employed several generations of family members on my mother's side, beginning with my grandfather, F.B. Ransom, who was the company's attorney and general manager.
My sister and I knew that we dare not enter the house with a jar of rival Dax or Dippity Do for our hair -- all but Walker hair-care products and cosmetics were verboten. After all, our mother, A'Lelia Ransom Nelson, having inherited her father's share of the company, had become president of the Madame C.J. Walker Company. We also knew that the reason we went on glorious journeys by train to Indiana several times a year, engaging a sleeper car and gorging ourselves on delicious food served by solicitous Pullman porters, was that she was required to attend regular board meetings.
But like most children, we took all these things for granted, our world being pretty much defined by family and relatives. Neither I nor my older sister or baby brother gave the unique legacy of the Madame C.J. Walker Company much thought; we simply accepted its existence and influence on our lives. It fell to the eye of my older brother, Stanley Nelson, a film-maker, to take a closer look at both the company and the women who built it -- a glance, it turned out, that took eight years to complete.
"Two Dollars and a Dream," the story of Madame C.J. (Sarah) Walker and her daughter A'Lelia, is the result of my brother's examination of the company she founded and its influence on African-Americans. How did this single parent, the child of recently freed slaves, build a million-dollar company? What lessons can be learned from her odyssey? In a sense, the film is also my brother's own little "Roots," an attempt to rediscover our grandfather, to understand the environment from which our mother sprang and by doing so, perhaps, to better understand himself and our history.
We grew up on stories about Madame Walker and her company. How my mother's father, F.B. Ransom, worked on the railroad while going to law school and met Madame Walker, who traveled by rail to sell her hair-care products. How she was impressed with him and urged him to contact her after graduation. Of Madame Walker's extensive travels and tireless efforts to build the company. Of our mother and her brothers' youth in Indianapolis working in the Walker factory, the offices, or the building's restaurant, The Coffee Pot. We heard about evenings spent at the Madame C.J. Walker Building, watching films or live shows in the Walker Theatre. Of the style and presence of A'Lelia Walker, after whom my mother was named. And of weekends my mother, then a tiny girl, spent at Madame Walker's fabulous New York mansion, the Villa Lewaro.
"I'd always heard the story of Madame Walker from my mother," recalled Stanley. "When I became a film-maker I thought it would make a good film, but I thought in terms of fiction, because Walker had been dead since 1919. In 1979 I went out to Indianapolis to visit my family there, and my cousins took me down to the Walker Building, which the company built in 1929. That's where I found a film of its operations the company produced in 1928, glass slides from around 1914, and boxes and boxes of pictures and the company's correspondence dating back to 1913. When I found those pictures, it sure enough gave me hope."
Walker first started making products for women's hair at home on her stove. She sold them door to door, then city to city. As the company grew and she established a small factory in Indianapolis, she employed agents -- eventually numbering 50,000 -- working door to door, using methods similar to those used by Avon and other companies today. At the time of her death in 1919, Walker's company was worth more than $1 million. Ten years later, on the eve of the Depression, the company opened the Madame C.J. Walker Building, a three-story structure that housed the factory, office space, a theater and shops. The company still occupies the building, which now includes a museum to its founder.
But in the beginning, an eye for a great story, along with hope and a growing obsession, was about all Stanley Nelson had. All of us in the family thought a film about the company, its founder and her daughter was a wonderful idea, but I think we all doubted that it could, or would, be completed. I can remember dozens of family gatherings at which my brother talked about nothing but his latest discovery about Madame, the company or my grandfather while we all expressed interest, nodded politely -- and then rolled our eyes skeptically when he left the room.
It wasn't that we didn't have faith in him, but to paraphrase one of Walker's septuagenarian employees interviewed in the film, "We didn't know nothing about film-making!" Hollywood was our frame of reference, much more so than documentary films partially financed by a relative. Besides, what took so long?
An ongoing problem was "Money, money, money!" my brother sings in brief homage to the O'Jays. "I broke the first rule of film-making by starting filming before I had enough money to complete the film," he said. "In fact, I only had a couple of thousand dollars. I did that because there were still a number of people alive who worked for the company as early as 1916. They were very old, and I had to talk to them before they died." In addition, he free-lanced and worked full-time as a producer for United Methodist Communications in New York for seven of the eight years.
"The money hunt was discouraging. I was turned down by almost every funding organization in the world!" Nelson laughed. "In the end, the film cost $100,000. Ten thousand of that was my own money and the rest was grants from about 20 different sources, including a couple of individuals who gave me $500."
The finished film is more than any of us expected. It is a personal family history, but it is also a portrait of an era and a people, drawn through stills, old film footage, reminiscences of those who knew the Walkers and the evocative music of the era, including a blues song written about Madame Walker.
Now that "Two Dollars and a Dream" is finally finished, my brother is simultaneously working on distribution, raising money for several other films and doing freelance film work. Nowadays at family functions he talks endlessly about the subject of his latest film. This time, we do not look askance or roll our eyes, but offer whatever support we can. There is little time for him to rest on his laurels and, besides, that does not seem his style. He is a man driven by his own magnificent obssessions.
"I would do it all again for this film because it was a film about my family, a film that is very important for me and, I hope, for black people. But it was a long time coming," he said. "When people ask me what it took to make the film, I say it took two dollars and a dream."
Jill Nelson, a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine, narrates her brother's film, "Two Dollars and a Dream: The Story of Madame C.J. and A'Lelia Walker." The documentary, part of PBS's series of Black History Month presentations, airs Monday at 10 on WETA and Tuesday at 11 on Maryland Public Television stations.