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.
“Occasionally I found myself at the end of cold trails, but more often I was blessed with serendipitous little miracles that revealed a person or document or place, exactly the clue I needed for the next step of my search,” I wrote in 2000 as I was completing On Her Own Ground. “Fortunately, Madam Walker and A’Lelia Walker and my mother [A'Lelia Mae Perry Bundles] had known so many people that the usual six degrees of separation were reduced to two or three. One phone call, maybe two, almost always opened the door that I needed.”
Back then, it was a phone call and the curiosity I’d cultivated as a long time TV news journalist that helped me make the connections. Now it’s Facebook, Google, Ancestry.com and an array of friendships I’ve been fortunate to make through years of social and professional linkages.
Imagine my delight a few days ago, when the universe again activated those two degrees of separation, this time to photojournalist Joseph Dumas, whose grandfather and great-uncle, had made a brief appearance in On Her Own Ground because of their hospitality to Madam Walker during a visit to Natchez, Mississippi. In a November 8, 1916 letter to her attorney, F. B. Ransom, she had gone on and on about the extraordinary and distinguished Doctors Dumas: Albert Woods, an 1899 graduate of Illinois Medical College, and Henry Joseph, a 1901 graduate of Meharry’s School of Pharmacy. Madam’s hosts–Albert and his wife, Cornelia Harrison Dumas–owned one of the finest homes in Natchez, the Mississippi River town long known for its antebellum era wealth.
From Jackson, Mississippi, Madam Walker wrote: “I surely made a hit in Natchez and am sure we’ll get some good business from there. Write a nice letter to Drs. Henry and Albert Dumas [who] vied with each other in showing us every courtesy [and who] not only refused to take pay for our room and board, but carriage hire, medicine, professional services and even advertising. I never have met such people before in all my life to be strangers. I’d like so much for you to know them.”
Clearly the same graciousness Madam Walker experienced 95 years ago this month continued through the generations as evidenced by this note I received from Dr. Albert Dumas’s grandson, Joseph, a few days ago: “I see we have a mutual friend in Vern Smith, formerly Atlanta Bureau Chief of Newsweek. As a boy, Vern had been a patient of my father, Dr. Albert W. Dumas, Jr. (1903-1971); and we have a link through my grandfather. Thank you for the informative and nuanced biography of Madam C.J. Walker. You were the only one who could have done the subject justice. In the narrative, you wrote of my paternal grandfather, Dr. Albert W. Dumas, Sr.(1876-1945), and his brother, Dr. Henry Dumas, of Natchez, Miss., who hosted Madam Walker during her visit to Mississippi circa, 1917-1919. One day, I had hoped an opportunity would present itself to express my family’s gratitude for your entry about our patriarchs of whom we remain proud. Today, Facebook presented such an opportunity.”
Truly Joseph Dumas–a kindred spirit in the preservation of family stories–made my day. And what patriarchs, indeed, he has to celebrate! His grandfather, Dr. Albert Woods Dumas, Sr, was born in Houma, Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana into a large family of achievers. He was elected president of the National Medical Association in 1941 just fifteen years after yet another brother, Dr. Michel O. Dumas, had served in the same position. Dr. Michel also served as chairman of the board of Howard University’s School of Medicine. Dr. Albert, Sr. and his pharmacist brother, Henry, owned a medical building and drugstore in downtown Natchez and were founding members of the Natchez Negro Business League.
At this point, I’ve spent so many years doing research on African American success stories that I’m no longer surprised by the existence of people like the Dumas Brothers, which is not to say that I don’t also still stand in awe of their accomplishments. The Doctors Dumas may have been the exception to the rule a century ago, but the intelligence, motivation and hunger that spurred them on was in rich supply among black men and women born during the generations immediately after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Recently I’d read an article about Madam Walker in which another writer speculated about whether she had been able to stay in hotels at a time of the most horrendous segregation and discrimination. Indeed, I was able to tell the article’s publisher that she occasionally had been a guest in the few first class black-owned hotels that existed in the United States during the early 20th century, but I also shared that she usually preferred to stay in private homes of prominent African Americans in the many cities she visited. Seeing photos of the Dumas residence, which still stands in Natchez today, is evidence of why she had such a preference.
The more I write about Madam Walker and A’Lelia Walker–and the world they inhabited–the more I realize how few people truly know the accomplishments of successful African Americans during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many readers tell me how surprised they are to learn that there were were black doctors, attorneys, entrepreneurs and entertainers who owned homes and businesses and who traveled and lived abroad. Many think the high achievement we see today is a recent phenomenon. But it most surely is not.
For a fascinating history lesson, check out Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite 1880 to 1920 by Willard Gatewood, a dear friend and former University of Arkansas professor, who died just a few weeks ago. For more about Natchez’s prosperous black community, take a look at Jack E. Davis’s Race against Time: Culture and Separation in Natchez Since 1930.
And by all means, visit Joseph Dumas’s blog, both to learn more about his fascinating family and to experience the stunning photos he’s taken during his world travels through the years.
For more information about Madam Walker–the early 20th century entrepreneur, philantrophist, arts patron and activist–and A’Lelia Walker–the Harlem Renaissance arts patron and salon hostess–we welcome you to our websites: http://www.madamcjwalker.com/and www.madamwalkerfamilyarchives.wordpress.com