Happy 144th Birthday, Madam C. J. Walker!

Madam C. J. Walker circa 1912 (Madam Walker Family Archives http://www.aleliabundles.com)

Sarah Breedlove–who later would become known to the world as Madam C. J. Walker–was born on December 23, 1867, just two days before Christmas. The year had been a particularly difficult one for her parents, Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove, who struggled to farm the land as sharecroppers on the same Delta, Louisiana planation where they had been enslaved. That their first child to be born free after the Emancipation Proclamation should also enter the world during the Christmas season was a double blessing. 

Sarah Breedlove was born in this Delta, Louisiana cabin on December 23, 1867 (Madam Walker Family Collection)

 

 

 

 

But the blessings soon turned to tragedy. Orphaned at seven, married at 14, widowed at 20 with a two year old daughter, it seemed that Sarah Breedlove McWilliams was destined to remain a poor, uneducated washerwoman.

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Madam Walker and the Doctors Dumas of Natchez

Madam Walker's November 8, 1916 letter to Atty. F. B. Ransom describes her visit with the Doctors Dumas in Natchez, MS (www.aleliabundles.com)

Combine clues in a faded letter from November 1916 with the algorithms of Facebook and the distance across the decades evaporates.

Finding descendants and relatives of people who knew my great-great-grandmother, Madam C. J. Walker, and her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, two decades ago when I was researching On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker often was a hit or miss proposition.

But even then–long before we had all the Internet tools we now take for granted–I had the sense that the ancestors were leading me to the interviews I did in the homes of surviving Harlem Renaissance icons Alberta Hunter, Dorothy West, Bruce Nugent and Geraldyn Dismond (later known as Jet’s society columnist, Gerri Major) and artist Romare Bearden, whose mother, Bessye Bearden, had been a close friend of A’Lelia Walker’s. Continue reading

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Celebrating Madam Walker’s Legacy: A Walker Family Perspective

Madam Walker's Monogrammed Silver (Walker Family Archives of A'Lelia Bundles)One of my earliest memories of my great-great-grandmother’s existence is seeing her monogram on the silverware we used everyday. “CJW” for “C. J. Walker,” the name Sarah Breedlove McWilliams adopted after marrying her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker.

I grew up in a home surrounded by items that had belonged to Madam Walker–the early twentieth century hair care entrepreneur and philanthropist–and her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, who was to become an icon of the Harlem Renaissance. And ofcourse with a name like “A’Lelia,” there was an obvious connection since both my mother and I are named for Madam Walker’s daughter.
          The china that we used on special occasions had been purchased by Madam Walker. The Chickering baby grand piano on which I learned to read music, had been in A’Lelia Walker’s 136th Street Harlem townhouse and Edgecombe Avenue pied-a-terre. And, yet, as a child I was never made to feel as if Madam Walker were the center of my universe or that I had any obligation to carry on or live up to a legacy. For that I can thank my late mother, who was wise enough to know that each generation must find its own passions and accomplishments.

     Today, as Walker’s biographer and only great-great-granddaughter, I am proud to honor her legacy as president of the Madam Walker Family Archives–the world’s largest private collection of Walker photographs, letters, business records, clothing, furniture and memorabilia–and as a board member of the Madam Walker Theatre Center, a National Historic Landmark in Indianapolis that once housed the original Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. 

A'Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker's biographer and great-great-granddaughter (Ebony Photo)

To read the full article go to “A Family Perpective: Celebrating Madam Walker’s Legacy” at http://www.aleliabundles.com/2011/09/22/a-family-perspective-celebrating-madam-walkers-legacy-2/ from her great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles’s blog at www.aleliabundles.com

 

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Madam Walker’s 1917 Convention: Entrepreneurship & Protest Politics

Madam Walker with her agents at the 1917 national Walker Beauty Culturist Convention in Philadelphia/Madam Walker Family Archives (aleliabundles.com)

On August 31, 1917, Madam C. J. Walker hosted the first national convention of her Walker “beauty culturists” at Philadelphia’s Union Baptist Church. More than 200 women from all over the United States gathered to learn about sales, marketing and management at what was one of the earliest professonal gatherings of American women entrepreneurs.

Walker–who founded her Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company during the spring of 1906 in Denver after marrying her third husband, Charles Joseph “C.J.” Walker, earlier that year–had first begun selling hair care products in St. Continue reading

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A’Lelia Walker’s Grand Harlem Funeral: August 1931

A'Lelia Walker wearing her favorite Chinese amber prayer beads (Madam Walker Family Archives/www.aleliabundles.com)

After a day of champagne, lobster and laughter with friends, A’Lelia Walker–my great-grandmother and daughter of entrepreneur, Madam C. J. Walker–died in a cottage near the beach in Long Branch, New Jersey. Her funeral–with music, poetry and great oratory–was as grand as her Harlem Renaissance era parties.

Hope you’ll enjoy my essay, “A’Lelia Walker’s Grand Harlem Funeral.”

A'Lelia Walker's funeral in Harlem August 1931 (Madam Walker Family Archives/aleliabundles.com)

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Faith Ringgold’s “The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles” and Madam C. J. Walker

Faith Ringgold's "The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles" 1991 (www.faithringgold.com)

Between friendship links on Facebook and research on Ancestry.com (which I’ve decided is Facebook for the dearly departed), I’ve been able to make connections and conduct a level of intimate research for my new book about my great-grandmother, A’Lelia Walker, that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I was writing On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker.

A few days ago, a little nugget from 1910 about one of A’Lelia Walker’s friends led me to an article about a friend of hers named Ringgold. Such an unusual surname. So of course I thought of Faith Ringgoldartist, quilter, author, professor and mother of author Michele Wallace–and wondered if there were any connection. I couldn’t resist reaching out Continue reading

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Madam Walker’s Shawl and the Iconic 1912 Addison Scurlock Portrait

July is always a month of memories for me because my grandfather, Marion Rowland Perry, Jr. was born on July 11 and my mother, A’Lelia Mae Perry Bundles, on July 22. During the summer of 1982–as I was in the midst of doing research for the first of my two biographies of my great-great-grandmother, Madam C. J. Walker–I visited my grandfather for his 90th birthday in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

Madam Walker's Chinese silk shawl and the Addison Scurlock portrait in which it was worn (Madam Walker Family Archives/aleliabundles.com)

I shared stories about that magical visit–and my rediscovery of a steamer trunk filled with Walker family treasures–in the prologue of my book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. My dear PaPa had saved all the items I remembered from my childhood visits to his Indianapolis apartment: Madam Walker’s mother-of-pearl opera glasses, my grandmother Mae’s wedding dress, my great-grandmother A’Lelia Walker’s 1919 marriage license (complete with pressed baby’s breath) and her gold filigree-trimmed negligee.

But perhaps my most prized find that day was the shawl Madam Walker had worn in the circa 1912 Addison Scurlock photograph of her that now has become iconic. Continue reading

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