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.
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.
We selected that well-known photograph for the United States Postal Service’s Black Heritage Series stamp of Madam Walker, which was unveiled in January 1998 at Indianapolis’s Madam Walker Theatre Center, one of three National Historic Landmarks associated with Madam Walker’s legacy.
A few years ago, when I learned from friends that a small carte de visite of the photograph was up for auction and that the National Portrait Gallery was planning to bid, I must admit that I cringed at the thought of something so precious being auctioned off to the highest bidder. As a family member, it was an honor to donate one of the cartes de visite from our Madam Walker Family Archives and to know that Madam Walker would be included in the NPG’s permanent collection as well as in the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibition, Women of Our Time: Twentieth Century Photographs from the National Portrait Gallery.
More recently, the photograph has become a part of another Smithsonian traveling exhibition, Portraits of a City: The Scurlock Photographic Studio, and the book, Picturing the Promise, both initiatives of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, where much of our Madam Walker Family Archives eventually will reside.
On the rare occasions when I hold the shawl–made of ivory Chinese hand-embroidered silk–I imagine Madam Walker in Addison Scurlock’s Washington, DC studio on U Street as he or one of his assistants carefully draped the garment around her shoulders. To have one’s photograph taken by Scurlock was to have arrived, and something she would have been particularly conscious of in 1912 as she was emerging as a nationally known entrepreneur and polishing her image and her advertisements.
Among the other famous African Americans who posed for Scurlock were biologist Ernest Everett Just, attorney Charles Hamilton Houston, scholars Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois, diplomat Ralph Bunche, composer Duke Ellington, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, educators Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune and NACW founder Mary Church Terrell.
We’d love to have you visit us on Facebook at Madam Walker and A’Lelia Walker Family Archives and Madam C. J. Walker Official Biography. For more information about Madam Walker’s life, visit our website at www.madamcjwalker.com. To contact A’Lelia Bundles, visit www.aleliabundles.com