BLACK HISTORY MONTH SPECIAL
With A'Lelia Bundles, Author
"On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker"
Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2001; 12 Noon EST
A'Lelia Bundles has written an extensive biography of her great, great grandmother, Madam C.JAW. Walker, which chronicles the life journey of a relative born to slaves, who had an idea for a hair care product for African American women and became a pioneer of American enterprise. From washerwoman to business woman and later entrepreneur and philanthropist, Sarah Breedlove worked her beauty product by traveling the country to expand her business and spread the word. "On Her Own Ground" is a personal story about overcoming the odds with a strong-willed, dedicated initiative.
A'Lelia Bundles is the author of numerous essays, articles and encyclopedia entries about Madam C.J. Walker and a young adult book, "Madam C.J. Walker". She is also former deputy bureau chief for ABC News in Washington and an award-winning network news producer.
A transcript follows.
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A'Lelia Bundles: Good afternoon. This is A'Lelia Bundles. I'm delighted to be with you today to talk about my new book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker.
How did Ms. Walker get the name Madam?
A'Lelia Bundles: She was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, LA in 1867. After the death of her first husband in 1888 and her separation from her second husband in 1903, she married a man named Charles Joseph Walker in 1906. Around the same time she started her new company and began calling herself "Madam" C. J. Walker. . .in part, I think, to ensure that others would address her with respect and in part because other businesswomen--for example seamstresses, hairdressers and boardinghouse operators--used the same term.
Any chance her story will become a movie?
A'Lelia Bundles: Yes, a movie based on my book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, is currently in development with Columbia Tri-Star Television and CBS. Cheryl West, whose plays have appeared locally in Washington at the Arena Stage, is writing the screenplay.
What gave Madam Walker her drive?
A'Lelia Bundles: I don't think there is any one thing that can explain Madam Walker's drive. In many ways I think she possessed a touch of genius as do all people of great vision in each generation. BUt I also think some of the seeds were planted during various phases of her life. Although she grew up in dire poverty in the 1860s and 1870s in the rural south she had a chance to see several Reconstruction era black elected officials,including the minister of her family church who was a Louisiana state senator. After she moved to St. Louis in the late 1880s she was exposed to the middle class women of the AME church, and I believe they had a significant influence on her.
Are stories like Madam Walker's happening today?
A'Lelia Bundles: Yes, there are many modern day Madam Walker's. Cathy Hughes, the founder of Radio One, is someone who comes to mind as a woman who made her vision a reality. Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates are other examples of people who have developed their entrepreneurial ideas beyond anyone's expectations.
What where her husbands like, including their occupations and how the two related?
A'Lelia Bundles: Very little is known about her first two husbands. Moses McWilliams died when she was 20. Her second husband, John Davis, was a laborer in St. Louis. Her third husband, C. J. Walker, was a newspaper agent who helped develop some of her early advertisements and mail order systems. He was instrumental in the establishment of the company, but within a few years it became clear that she had a great deal more ambition than he.
Is Madam Walker a part of Black History Month?
A'Lelia Bundles: Yes, I believe Madam Walker has received a great deal of attention during Black History Month. But I would like to see her and other women and people of color included in American history EVERY month of the year.
Did the idea for the hair salve really come to her in a dream or is this folklore?
A'Lelia Bundles: That's a great question. I think Madam Walker's discovery was the result of many factors. I believe her story that she had a dream, just as I have read that Einstein said the theory of relativity was revealed to him in a dream. But I also believe that Madam Walker experimented with other products that were already on the market and analyzed some of those. Really, the formula for Madam Walker's "Wonderful Hair Grower" is not complicated and is a centuries old curative for skin disease. The most significant ingredient in the ointment was sulfur, a known agent for healing scalp disease. Once the scalp was clean and healthy, hair could grow back.
Thanks for taking my question. I wonder if you have been able to trace your roots past your great great grandmother back to Africa. Do you know anything of those ancestors?
A'Lelia Bundles: With Madam Walker's family, I have only been able to go back as far as her parents, Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove, who were both born around 1828. However, I have been able to trace other parts of my family who were free people of color to North Carolina in the early 1700s. I have not really attempted yet to make the African connection, but perhaps that will happen one day.
Is Walker's story similar to the Johnson haircare product empire?
A'Lelia Bundles: I suppose in the general sense that all companies started by a charismatic, dedicated founder are similar.
Did she live in that big mansion she built in upstate New York. Is it being renovated?
A'Lelia Bundles: Yes, Madam Walker moved into her mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, NY--not far from the estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller--in June 1918. She entertained her friends and business associates there until her death in May 1919. The home, called Villa Lewaro, was named by the great tenor Enrico Caruso, who said, after a visit there, that it reminded him of homes in his native Italy. He suggested to Madam Walker that she name it after her daughter, Lelia Walker Robinson, by using two letters from each of her names. Today the home is a National Historic Landmark and a private residence, not generally open to the public. However, you can watch a wonderful one hour documentary called "Designing for History: The Madam Walker Show House," which will air on HGTV on February 28. For more information go to www.hgtv.com
Some have said that black women's hair is political--that it represents things. Have you heard that?
A'Lelia Bundles: Yes, I agree that hair can express both the political and the personal. Hair is often important to all women, but perhaps especially so for black women in a society that has traditionally not valued their beauty. While hair can still cause some pain for women, I am glad that we are at the point now where we can appreciate all textures of hair for their natural and inherent beauty.
Who would you like to see portray Madam Walker when it becomes a movie? Other characters?
A'Lelia Bundles: There are a number of great black actresses who could successfully portray Madam Walker. Some who have been suggested in the past include Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Alfre Woodward and CCH Pounder.
Explain the name A'Lelia. Did your name come up through Madam Walker's family?
A'Lelia Bundles: Madam Walker named her daughter "Lelia." Sometime around 1920, after Madam Walker's death, Lelia added the "A'" and changed her name to A'Lelia. It has become a family name that was passed down both to me and to my late mother, whose name was A'Lelia Mae Perry Bundles.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Are there any schools, streets, etc., named after Madam Walker?
A'Lelia Bundles: To my knowledge, there are no streets or schools named after Madam Walker. But in Indianapolis the Madam Walker Theatre Center--the former headquarters for the Madam C. J. Walker Mfg. Company--is a cultural arts center and a National Historic Landmark. There is a suite in the Embassy Suites Hotel in Indianapolis named for Madam Walker. And she was honored with a black heritage series stamp from the United States Postal Service in 1998.
To have all the money that she earned, her products must've really sold on a massive level. Give us an idea of how that was done. And was she a good person to work for?
A'Lelia Bundles: Yes, Madam Walker's products were sold on a massive scale. Part of the key to her success was her extensive travel throughout the United States, the Caribbean and Central America. She trained thousands of women in the Walker System of beauty culture, developed a thriving mail order operation, established beauty schools and opened franchised beauty salons. In 1917, Madam Walker held the first national convention of Walker sales agents and beauty culturists.
And, yes, she was good person to work for. She had the ability to motivate others and to bring out the best in them. Long before the government required annual vacations, she gave her employees paid leave and health benefits.
A'Lelia Bundles: It's been a pleasure to answer your questions about Madam Walker today. I hope you'll have a chance to read my new book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, and that you'll visit my web site at www.madamcjwalker.com for more information.
How long did it take to do this book?
A'Lelia Bundles: I've been working on On Her Own Ground in one way or another most of my life. I began researching it in 1976 and through the years, while I held full-time jobs, I spent weekends, holidays and early mornings gathering material. In 1982 I interviewed all the surviving relatives and company employees I could locate. My young adult biography, Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur was published by Chelsea House in 1991. In 1995 I began work on the current book, devoting full-time to it from February 1999 to May 2000, when I finished the manuscript.
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