Happy 148th Birthday to Madam C. J. Walker!

Today — December 23, 2015 — is the 148th anniversary of Madam C. J. Walker’s birth!

She was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana on the same planation where her parents Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove had been enslaved. The first child in her family to be born after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, her birth was greeted with much hope and promise. But the Breedlove family’s reality was bleak. Watermark Delta Cabin (www.aleliabundles.com)

By the time Sarah was seven years old, both parents had died. At ten, she moved across the Mississippi River to Vicksburg, Mississippi with her older sister, Louvenia, and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell, who was so cruel, she would later say, that she “married at 14 to get a home of my own.” Another blow came with the death of her husband, Moses McWilliams, when she was 20. Now with her two-year old daughter, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia Walker) to raise, she moved up the river to St. Louis, Missouri where her older brothers worked as barbers.


She struggled for the next decade working as a laundress, doing the back-breaking work of washing clothes by hand in tubs and without indoor plumbing. At the end of some weeks, she’d made as little as $1.50, but her dreams for her daughter made her persevere. One day while her hands were buried deep in soap suds, she despaired that life might never get better. But the solution to her problems eventually came when she developed a shampoo and ointment to heal the scalp disease that was causing her to go bald.

Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro in May 1919.

Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro in May 1919.

By the time she died on May 25, 1919 at Villa Lewaro (her mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York), she had founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company and become a millionaire, some say the first self-made American woman to attain that level of financial success.


There is much more to her story of course. How she discovered, developed and marketed her “Wonderful Hair Grower.” How she employed thousands of women as Walker sales agents and beauty culturists. How she spoke up to Booker T. Washington at his 1912 National Negro Business League Convention. How she gathered more than 200 women together for one of America’s first national conventions of women entrepreneurs in 1917. Her prominence as a philanthropist and patron of the arts. Her friendships with Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune and James Weldon Johnson among others. Her $1,000 contribution to Indianapolis’s YMCA and $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign. Her activism on behalf of black soldiers, young women and the rights of African Americans.


Her legacy of entrepreneurship and philanthropy still empowers others. She is often mentioned by businesswomen in America and beyond as an inspiration. Her company is discussed and critiqued in a Harvard Business School course. Dozens of students across the nation prepare projects about her every year for National History Day. Countless young girls have dressed up as Madam Walker for Black History Month and Women’s History Month. She is the subject of numerous documentaries, public service announcements and news stories. Several organizations host annual Madam Walker awards luncheons. The Madam Walker Collection of photographs, letters and business records is the most popular collection at the Indiana Historical Society. She was featured on a U. S. postage stamp in 1998. Recently her name was touted as contender for the $20 bill. There are two National Historic Landmarks associated with her life: Villa Lewaro in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York and the Madam Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Here are some of the books in which she has been featured or mentioned in the last couple of years. IMG_1275

Angella M. Nazarian’s Visionary Women (Assouline Publishers)

Cynthia L. Greene’s Entrepreneurship: Ideas in Action (Cengage Learning)

Faith Ringgold’s Harlem Renaissance Party (Amistad)

James J. Madison and Lee Ann Sandweiss’s Hoosiers and the American Story (Indiana Historical Society)

Martin Kilson’s Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia 1880 – 2012 (Harvard University Press)

Diane Radmacher’s Famous Firsts of St. Louis: A Celebration of Facts, Figures, Food & Fun

As we approach the 150th anniversary of her birth, we can say there are more exciting announcements to come in the new year. Stay tuned!


Other blog posts that might interest you

A Family Perspective:  Celebrating Madam Walker’s Legacy

Madam Walker’s 1917 Convention: Entrepreneurship and Protest Politics

Madam Walker’s Mansion: The Future of Villa Lewaro

Madam Walker’s August Garden

Woodlawn Cemetery — Burial Place of Madam Walker — Designated National Historic Landmark

Madam Walker Visits the Brothers Dumas in Mississippi

Madam Walker Black History Month 2013


To learn more about Madam Walker, visit our official Madam C. J. Walker website at www.madamcjwalker.com

To order On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker and Madam Walker Theatre Center, visit my website at www.aleliabundles.com

Here’s a link to videos about Madam Walker.

Check out Madam Walker on Facebook.

Four Free Women Re-visited

The 54th annual Emancipation reunion at Cosmopolitan Baptist Church in Washington, DC October 1916 (Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress)

The 54th annual Emancipation reunion at Cosmopolitan Baptist Church in Washington, DC October 1916 (Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress)

In April 2012 at the time of the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of enslaved people in the District of Columbia–a prelude to the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863–I saw a photograph in the Washington Post of four women centenarians, who had gathered with other freed people at a church in Washington, DC in 1916.

I was so curious about the women that I began to do research about the photo and the event. When I posted the photo on my Helping Ourselves/Telling Our Stories Facebook page, it went viral like nothing I’d ever posted before. Earlier this year For Harriet’s Facebook page posted it and it truly blew up!

Here’s a link to the blog article I wrote two and a half years ago after I discovered more details about the event, about the photographer and about the minister whose church hosted the gathering.
Last week the PBS show, “To the Contrary,” interviewed me for a segment about the photo. The piece begins at 16:00. 

Celebrating the Fourth of July at the National Archives


Fourth of July at the National Archives (File 2011)

What a day! I haven’t come down from the joy of this morning’s Independence Day celebration at the National Archives!

I had a fabulous time last year listening to the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps and mingling with Revolutionary War era re-enactors Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Ned Hector, a black Continental Army soldier.

Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps 2012

But this year was over the top! At the invitation of David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, I delivered the keynote address, taking my inspiration from Frederick Douglass’s famous 1852 Fourth of July speech while also recounting the role of black Patriots in Revolutionary War.

Riley Temple (Foundation for the National Archives board member), Laura Murphy (descendant of Declaration signer Philip Livingston) and A’Lelia Bundles

The morning was even more special because my friend Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, became the first African American descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence to participate in the reading of the document at the prestigious National Archives ceremony.

I’ve posted lots of photos on my Facebook page. Because several people were kind enough to ask for a copy of my speech, I’m posting what I said about Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Fourth of July speech and what the holiday means to me 160 years later. [Here, also, is a link to the video.]

Honored guests at the 2012 National Archives Fourth of July Celebration


Four Free Women: 1916 Emancipation Reunion

Annie Parrum, Anna Angales, Elizabeth Berkeley and Sadie Thompson–all older than 100–at a 1916 Emancipation reunion (Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress)

I couldn’t stop staring at this photo. Four elderly black women, “all older than 100, at a convention in the District in 1916,” said the caption in last Friday’s Washington Post.

Hoping to learn more about them, I logged on to the Root DC’s page of the  Post’s website. Instead I found only an image of Abraham Lincoln in the Emancipation Day article about the April 1862 legislation that freed 3,128 of the District’s enslaved citizens.

Within a few minutes of online research, though, I discovered two more photos taken on the same day in 1916 by Harris & Ewing at an Emancipation reunion.  As the official White House photographers of the early 1900s and then the nation’s largest photo news service, they rarely snapped shots of African Americans. (more…)