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 Indianapolis 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.
My late mother, A’Lelia Mae Perry Bundles, was a long time executive of the Walker Company and the fourth woman in her family to serve as a company officer and estate trustee. Her mother, Mae Walker Perry–who was legally adopted by A’Lelia Walker–traveled with Madam Walker as a model, whose very long hair became an advertisement for Walker’s “Wonderful Hair Grower.” She also assisted Madam Walker with sales lectures throughout the United States until the Walker women enrolled her at Spelman, fulfilling a promise to her biological mother, Sarah Etta Hammond Bryant. Mae served as president of the Walker Company from 1931 at the time of A’Lelia Walker’s death until her own death in December 1945, with F. B. Ransom as attorney and general manager.
Through the years my family has spearheaded and supported a number of initiatives including the 1998 Madam Walker postage stamp; numerous Walker documentaries, museum exhibitions and national awards ceremonies bearing Madam Walker’s name; and the recent renaming of the street in Harlem where Madam Walker and my great-grandmother and namesake, A’Lelia Walker, owned a home from 1913 until 1931.
As Madam Walker’s biographer, I have written two books, including On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, a New York Times Notable Book, and Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur, a young adult book, which received an American Book Award. I have been fortunate to have been invited to speak about Madam Walker’s life and entrepreneurial activities throughout the United States, Europe and the Middle East, as well as on dozens of television and radio programs, as the Walker family’s official representative.
My personal focus in celebrating the Walker legacy is the sharing of information about the lives of Madam Walker (1867-1919) and A’Lelia Walker (1885-1931) with students, scholars, journalists, museums, universities and entrepreneurs. I currently am writing the first major biography about A’Lelia Walker and her parties, travels, arts patronage and friendships with other Harlem Renaissance icons during the 1920s in New York. Because of my research about Madam Walker’s personal and professional life and about the Walker Company during its most successful decades after its founding in Denver in 1906, I also am interested in the original employees and their families–including the descendants of F. B. Ransom, Violet Reynolds, Senator Robert L. Brokenburr and Marie Overstreet–who were involved in the Walker Company from its early years until the 1960s when sales dwindled and newer, more competitive companies were established.
Descendants of other original Walker Company families are involved in furthering the Walker legacy in other ways. Ransom’s grandson, filmmaker Stanley Nelson, produced “Two Dollars and a Dream,” the 1987 award-winning documentary about Madam Walker. His sister, journalist and activist Jill Nelson, narrated the film.
As someone who grew up with two parents who both were hair care company executives, I remain endlessly fascinated by the industry. I write about the history and politics of hair on my Madam Walker website and as the Black Hair Historian on Facebook. I even was lucky enough to have had a brief appearance in Chris Rock’s popular movie, Good Hair. In many ways, my thirty year career as a network television news producer and executive with ABC News and NBC News helped prepare me to tell the Walker women’s story. Today, by choice, no members of my family are affiliated with the manufacture of Walker hair care products, but we love hearing from entrepreneurs who tell us how inspired they continue to be by Madam Walker’s example.
As the Madam Walker Building approaches its 85th year, we look forward to welcoming tourists, students and yet another generation of Indianapolis residents who are feeling the inspiration and pride their parents and grandparents have told us they felt as young people attending dances, movies, Walker Beauty School graduations and other events.
For more information about Madam Walker and the Madam Walker Family Archives, please visit our websites at www.madamcjwalker.com and www.madamwalkerfamilyarchives.wordpress.com. For more information about the Walker Theatre, visit www.walkertheatre.com.
To contact A’Lelia Bundles, please visit www.aleliabundles.com