Living History: Part of a series tied to the African American Museum of History and Culture.
She remembers the smells of the hair pomades in the factory, where women stirred ointment by hand in great, black vats.
She remembers her mother taking her to Madam C.J. Walker’s beauty school in Indianapolis in the 1960s to have her hair styled in an Afro.
She remembers growing up with remnants of the black wealth created by Walker, who built an empire in the early 1900s selling hair scalp ointments and whose accomplishments will be on display at the Smithsonian’s new African American Museum of History and Culture, which opens Sept. 24.
“The china we ate on for special occasions belonged to Madam Walker,” says A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and the author of the biography, “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.”
The cloth napkins placed on her childhood dining-room table were stitched with Walker’s monogram; the baby grand piano on which Bundles learned to read music had belonged to Walker’s only daughter, A’Lelia Walker, a wealthy patron of the arts who threw lavish parties in her mansion in Harlem and Walker’s 20,000-square-foot estate, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington, N.Y.
Langston Hughes once called A’Lelia Walker the “Joy Goddess of the Harlem Renaissance.”
“The saying was that Madam Walker made the money, and her daughter, my great-grandmother, spent it,” says Bundles, 64, a former producer and Washington bureau chief for ABC News.
Sunlight pours through her window as A’Lelia Bundles places a large gift box on her dining-room table in her Northwest Washington home. She lifts the lid and unfolds thin, crinkled paper, unwrapping delicate memories. Inside the box lies a pearl and silk wedding underdress that once belonged to her grandmother Mae Walker, the granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker.
Madam Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on Dec. 23, 1867, on a Louisiana plantation. The daughter of former slaves, she was orphaned at the age of 7, wed at 14, a mother at 17 and widowed at 20.
She worked in cotton fields of Louisiana and Mississippi. Her only daughter, Lelia, who later became known as A’Lelia Walker, was born in 1885. After Madam Walker’s husband died, she moved to St. Louis, where her brothers worked as barbers.
Walker worked as a washerwoman, making as little as $1.50 a day. She suffered from hair loss. It was in St. Louis in her brothers’ barbershop that she got the idea to create a shampoo and a scalp ointment.
She called it “Wonderful Hair Grower,” and in 1906, she founded her company and turned it into an empire, becoming the first black female millionaire in the United States. She traveled throughout the country, selling hair ointments door-to-door. In 1908, she moved the company to Pittsburgh, where she opened “Lelia College,” which trained “hair culturists.” By 1910, Walker moved to Indianapolis, where she built a manicure salon, hair training school and factory, the headquarters of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co. The company employed as many as 3,000 black men and women — including sales agents.
“It’s admirable and amazing that she became a millionaire just one generation out of slavery and at a time when Jim Crow laws ruled the land,” Bundles says. “But what is more important for me is that she used her wealth and her influence to empower and enrich others by employing thousands of women who otherwise would have been sharecroppers, maids, cooks and laundresses so they could provide opportunities for their children, be leaders in their communities and support their churches and community organizations.”
A’Lelia Bundles did not grow up with great wealth in the suburbs of Indianapolis. The Great Depression had drained the Walker fortune decades before her birth. The company was sold in 1985. Bundles now works for the current owner, Sundial Brands, as the historian and consultant for the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture line.
Bundles describes her parents as middle class. But being financially comfortable didn’t protect them from the indignities of racism.
Her father, S. Henry Bundles, was a veteran, but he was unable to get a loan from major banks to buy a new home in an all-black neighborhood in 1958. When he traveled on business, as president of Summit Laboratories, a different black hair company, blacks had limited options for hotels.
When Bundles visited her great-aunt in Pine Bluff, Ark., she was taken to play in a segregated park, she recalls. And a few white parents threatened to pull their children from her high school after she was elected student council vice president in 1968.
“Like everybody else, we navigated through it so we wouldn’t be paralyzed,” says Bundles, who graduated from Harvard and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “If anything, like most black kids, I was not told of every incident because my parents didn’t want to make me bitter. But it’s not because things didn’t happen.”
She began learning bits of the family history when she visited her grandfather, the husband of Mae Walker, who had been adopted by A’Lelia Walker.
“I remember looking up at this big green, lacquer secretary with all these little drawers and cubbyholes,” Bundles says. “In his bedroom, there was a dresser. And this dresser had fans and opera glasses and clothing that had belonged to my grandmother [Mae Walker]. And these amazing little charms that were from A’Lelia Walker’s trip to Egypt in 1922.”
Many years later, in the summer of 1982, Bundles took another trip to visit her grandfather, Marion P. Perry Jr., who was 90 then and had moved back to Pine Bluff.
“ ‘Papa, you used to have this trunk,’ ” Bundles recalls telling him.
Her grandfather told her the trunk was in the closet. She found it, dragging it around his stacks of Wall Street Journals and ticket stubs from horse races.
The trunk held her history, but it was locked. Her grandfather had long lost the key. They called a locksmith.
“There were all kinds of things inside that trunk, clothes and photographs, silverware and linen,” Bundles says. “First, I pulled out a peach-colored negligee that had belonged to A’Lelia Walker.”
Her grandfather described meeting A’Lelia, who had traveled to Paris, Monte Carlo, Rome — where she attended the pope’s coronation — Cairo, Djibouti, the Holy Land and Addis Ababa, where she met the empress.
“He told stories about when he got married to my grandmother [Mae], coming up to the beautiful mansion,” Villa Lewaro, “in his tuxedo when he was a business student at Columbia. He had a big green Pierce-Arrow car.”
In the trunk lay her grandmother’s beautiful handmade wedding underdress. There were sepia photos of the wedding, a huge event in Harlem, orchestrated by A’Lelia Walker, who sent out 9,000 wedding invitations, Bundles says.
“I would take things out, and he would tell me a story about each thing and about the people,” she says.
The afternoon passed into night.
Sometimes her grandfather would doze off mid-story, then wake up and continue.
“He would tell me something more,” Bundles recalls. “And the next thing I knew, the sun was coming up. For me, it sounds a little hokey. But for me, it was really like passing the baton. It was a magical moment.”
About this series
This is the second story in an occasional series on people connected to the figures or events featured in the Smithsonian’s new African American Museum of History and Culture, which opens Sept. 24.