The Real A’Lelia Walker Is Much More Interesting Than the Myth

A’Lelia Walker was born 134 years ago today on June 6, 1885.

I’ve written a lot about her since I began researching her life during my senior year in high school fifty years ago. I won’t rehash the basic biographical information, which you can find in my book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, and in blog articles like “A’Lelia Walker’s 1924 Visit to Atlantic City” and “A’Lelia Walker Meets Ethiopian Empress Zauditu” on my website.

What I’d like to do today in celebration of her birthday is talk about the person I’ve discovered through extensive research – including her personal correspondence and other primary source documents – rather than the caricature that a number of authors have created.
First and foremost, she will always be known as the daughter of Madam C. J. Walker, the early 20th century hair care entrepreneur and philanthropist. But she also was her own person with interests, personality traits, likes, dislikes and a fascinating circle of friends.
More than I knew when I wrote On Her Own Ground twenty years ago, she was very much a patron of the arts with her own strong passion for music and art that began when she was growing up in St. Louis during the ragtime era of the 1890s. She traveled internationally and understood current events and the politics of Jim Crow. She had an impresario’s instinct for staging extravagant events.

She was a fashion trendsetter with a sharp eye for design. Her parties helped define the Harlem Renaissance. Her Dark Tower cultural salon was legendary. While she was less directly engaged than her mother in causes like the anti-lynching and women’s club movements, she raised money for community and social service organizations.

How Other Authors Viewed A’Lelia Walker
My literary introduction to A’Lelia Walker was through Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea, in which he famously proclaimed her death in August 1931 to be the end of an era. “That was really the end of the gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem,” he wrote. It is Hughes who anointed her “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” because of her parties and her room-filling personality.

What I have discovered after decades of research, however, is that several other authors who did not know her have repeated second hand, inaccurate and entirely fabricated stories about her. It’s hard to resist wondering if some of them have a need to project a story line onto her life. In their speculation and their failure to do original research, they have relied upon stereotypes and clichés about what they imagine A’Lelia Walker might have done.

I very much admire David Levering Lewis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning scholarship on W.E.B. DuBois, but his description of A’Lelia Walker in his widely read When Harlem Was in Vogue set the stage for a great deal of misinformation about her. Just as I discovered while doing research for my four Madam Walker books, I have encountered the same fictionalization of A’Lelia Walker while researching The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance (forthcoming from Scribner). In all her complexity and contradictions, A’Lelia Walker is an original who needs no embellishment.

I won’t address all the myths today, but here are three of the most glaring.

The Myth of A’Lelia Walker’s Short Attention Span
In 1982 Lewis wrote: “Her intellectual powers were slight. After seven minutes, conversation went precipitously downhill, but those first seven minutes were usually quite creditable.” Among the many authors who have mentioned A’Lelia Walker since then, Steven Watson perpetuated this myth in his 1995 book, The Harlem Renaissance, when he wrote: “One acquaintance cattily declared seven minutes to be her limit for elevated conversation.”
I’ve always found this claim odd. During the early 1980s, I had the good fortune of interviewing a dozen or so of A’Lelia Walker’s octogenarian and nonagenarian friends who regaled me with stories of their social gatherings and travels. To a person, they described A’Lelia’s attention to detail for the elegant parties she orchestrated. I know from her letters how focused she could be when she cared about something. I can’t help but wonder if, by chance, someone actually said she had a seven-minute attention span, that that person may have been someone she didn’t like or with whom she didn’t wish to have a conversation. She could be like that when she wanted to.
The Myth that A’Lelia Walker Didn’t Read Books
Watson seems to have started this rumor when he wrote: “Although she supported Harlem culture, she had little interest in intellectual talk and rarely read books.” More recently Saidiya Hartman paraphrased Watson and others in her 2019 book when she wrote: “[S]he financed the Dark Tower, a literary salon in her palatial home of thirty rooms, although it was rumored that she never read books, only supported their authors.” (The Dark Tower, by the way, was in A’Lelia Walker’s 136th Street townhouse rather than in Villa Lewaro, her Irvington, New York mansion.) Neither Watson or Hartman cites a source for this claim.

In fact, I have many books from A’Lelia Walker’s personal library, including an autographed copy of Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues. I also have personal correspondence in which she thanks friends for books they have sent her and talks about how much she loves to read.


The Myth that Grace Nail Johnson Wouldn’t Socialize with A’Lelia Walker

One of the most memorable passages in Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue is this: “Not everybody pined for an invitation to her brownstones and her country place. Grace Nail Johnson, the wife of James Weldon Johnson and ‘social dictator’ of Harlem, would as soon have done the Black Bottom on Lenox Avenue as cross A’Lelia’s threshold.”
These sentences have taken on a life of their own in Harlem Renaissance lore and been accepted as factual by readers and authors who have interpreted it to mean that A’Lelia Walker was shunned by Grace Nail Johnson and Harlem’s black elite.
In August 1999 Sondra Kathryn Wilson, the executor of the Johnson estate, told me in an email message that Mrs. Johnson was quite upset about this portrayal.
“It’s a lie,” she told Dr. Grace Sims Okala, her adopted daughter, in an interview recorded some years earlier by Wilson. “Grace and Jim considered the older Mrs. Walker as their friend. Grace often said that the elder Mrs. Walker and her father had similar backgrounds…Grace and Jim didn’t attend a lot of parties. Jim traveled a lot. He was gone so much and when he was home, he was writing. Grace and Jim preferred small dinner parties. If Grace didn’t attend the younger Ms. Walker’s parties, it had nothing to do with Ms. Walker. I know she wouldn’t attend a party if Jim was away. She wouldn’t have gone to Mrs. Walker’s or any other party alone.”
And I know from A’Lelia Walker’s correspondence – including an invitation for an event that lists both A’Lelia Walker and Grace Nail Johnson as hosts – that the speculation about their estrangement is inaccurate. Among other things, the spirit and implication of the story are contradicted by what society columnist Gerri Major, singer Alberta Hunter, artist Romare Bearden and many others told me about A’Lelia Walker during the 1980s.
There is so much more to say about my great-great-grandmother and namesake. Stay tuned for The Joy Goddess of Harlem.

The Centennial of Madam C. J. Walker’s Death – May 25, 1919

On Sunday morning, May 25, 1919 – exactly 100 years ago this weekend – Madam C. J. Walker died at Villa Lewaro, her Irvington-on-Hudson, New York estate.

A few hours later in black churches across America, ministers talked of her journey from deep poverty in the cotton fields of Delta, Louisiana to president of the international Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. It was such big news that the announcement also was made at a Negro League baseball game in Chicago that afternoon.

Madam C. J. Walker died on May 25, 1919 at Villa Lewaro, her Irvington, NY estate.

She was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 on the same plantation where her parents and older siblings had been enslaved before the end of the Civil War. The first child in her family born into freedom, she would become a millionaire who bequeathed more than $100,000 to her community, including $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund.

By providing job opportunities for the nearly 20,000 sales agents and beauty culturists who sold her Wonderful Hair Grower, she helped them become economically independent. She used her wealth and influence as a philanthropist, patron of the arts and political activist to support black institutions and organizations.

Madam Walker at her first national convention of her sales agents and beauty culturists in 1917.

At her 1917 national convention, she told the delegates that their “first duty” as Walker associates “was to humanity.” During the final session, she and her agents dispatched a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime.

Madam Walker’s funeral on May 30 was a dignified gathering with pallbearers who represented black America’s most prominent civil rights, business and religious leaders. Walker Company employees and agents filed quietly and reverently past her casket in the music room at Villa Lewaro as J. Rosamond Johnson sang “Since You Went Away,” the spiritual he had composed with his brother, James Weldon Johnson.

This year as we observe the centennial of Madam Walker’s death, there is much to remind us of the powerful inspiration her legacy still provides.

Throughout 2019 and 2020 we’ll celebrate with several events including
*the launch of new products in Sundial’s MCJW hair care line at

MCJW, the Madam Walker line of hair care products created by Sundial Brands.

*the re-opening of the renovated Madam Walker Legacy Center in Indianapolis
*the September 19 opening of a Madam Walker exhibition at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis
*the renaming this summer of 136th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenue in Harlem

*the digitization of 40,000 items from the Madam Walker Collection of letters, photographs, business records and ephemera at the Indiana Historical Society

This spring we’ve already had help celebrating with

*a featured segment about Madam Walker in Stanley Nelson’s PBS documentary, “BOSS: The Black Experience in Business”

*Harlem Eat Up Luminary Award to Madam Walker
*”What Madam Taught Us” in the May issue of Essence
*AAIHS’s five-part Black Perspectives blog forum with articles by scholars who bring new perspectives on Madam Walker’s life
*Our interview with Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Morning Edition host Leah Fleming

ABC News Now’s segment about Villa Lewaro

Ronda Racha Penrice’s NBC BLK feature on Madam Walker

During the last four decades in my role as Madam Walker’s biographer, it has been a joy for me to share her story with a range of audiences from elementary school students and Harvard Business School classes to corporate CEOs and women in the college course at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

Madam Walker biographies by A’Lelia Bundles

I’m grateful that my book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Scribner/Lisa Drew 2001), is considered the most reliable source for accurate information about Madam Walker and that elementary school students can learn about her in All About Madam C. J. Walker (Cardinal/Blue River Press 2018).

Knowing that Villa Lewaro soon will become a think tank for women of color entrepreneurs under the auspices of the New Voices Foundation brings the story full circle just as Madam Walker dreamed when she moved into the house in 1918.

Follow us on Twitter at @aleliabundles @mcjwbeauty @madamcjwalker

Follow us on Instagram at @aleliabundles @mcjwbeauty

A’Lelia Bundles is Madam C. J. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and biographer.


Madam C. J. Walker’s First National Convention (August 30-31, 1917)

One hundred years ago this week — on August 30 and August 31, 1917 — hair care entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker hosted the first annual convention of her sales agents and beauty culturists. More than 200 women gathered at Philadelphia’s Union Baptist Church to hear Walker’s message about entrepreneurship, civic responsibility and political activism.

At one of the first conventions of American businesswomen, the delegates shared stories of how their work as Walker agents had transformed and enriched their lives.

Madam C. J. Walker hosts the first annual convention of the Walker Beauty Culturists in Philadelphia on August 30-31, 1917. (Photo credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

Madam C. J. Walker hosts the first annual convention of the Walker Beauty Culturists in Philadelphia on August 30-31, 1917. (Photo credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

With few career opportunities open to black women during the early twentieth century, many had been maids, washerwomen, cooks and sharecroppers. A few had been teachers and nurses. Now they talked of the financial rewards that allowed them to purchase homes, educate their children and contribute to their churches and community organizations.

Margaret Thompson, president of the Philadelphia Union of Walker Hair Culturists told her colleagues that she had earned $5 a week as a servant. Now she claimed an income of $250 a week (the equivalent of more than $5,200 in 2017 dollars).

Madam C. J. Walker's best-selling product was her Wonderful Hair Grower, an ointment that healed scalp infections and dandruff. (Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

Madam C. J. Walker’s best-selling product was her Wonderful Hair Grower, an ointment that healed scalp infections and dandruff. (Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

On the final day of the convention Madam Walker’s theme was “Women’s Duty to Women.” She envisioned these economically successful women as community leaders and agents of change.  To emphasize the point, she gave $500 in prizes, not only to the women who had sold the most tins of Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, but to those whose local Walker clubs had contributed the most to charity.

At the end of the convention, the women sent a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to support legislation that would make lynching a federal crime.

“We, the representatives of the National Convention of the Madam C. J. Walker Agents, in convention assembled, and in a larger sense representing twelve million Negroes, have keenly felt the injustice done our race and country through the recent lynching at Memphis, Tennessee, and the horrible race riot at East St. Louis.” 

Madam C. J. Walker's keynote message in August 1917 was "Women's Duty to Women." (Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

Madam C. J. Walker’s keynote message in August 1917 was “Women’s Duty to Women.” (Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

“Knowing that no people in all the world are more loyal and patriotic than the Colored people of America, we respectfully submit to you this our protest against the continuation of such wrongs and injustices in this ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ and we further respectfully urge that you as President of these United States use your great influence that Congress enact the necessary laws to prevent a recurrence of such disgraceful affairs.” 

The Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company continued a tradition of annual conventions through the early 1960s.

Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture (

Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture (

Today the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture line of hair care products is manufactured by Sundial Brands and sold nationwide at Sephora.Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture (

Harlem Delegation Visits White House to Protest Lynching – August 1, 1917

July 28 marked the 100th anniversary of the Silent Protest Parade when 10,000 African Americans of all ages marched silently up Fifth Avenue to protest lynchings in America. As they stepped solemnly past thousands of onlookers, the only sounds were the muffled tat-a-tat of a drum and the scrape of shoes across pavement.

Men, women and 800 children had gathered to declare their outrage over the May 15 lynching of 17-year old Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas and the July 2 riot in East St. Louis, Illinois where white mobs murdered more than three dozen African Americans and attacked hundreds.

Silent Protest Parade July 28, 1917 (NYPL Digital Collection)

Silent Protest Parade July 28, 1917 (NYPL Digital Collection)

Today marks another important date related to that demonstration of defiance. On August 1, 1917 members of the NAACP’s New York chapter executive committee traveled from Harlem to Washington, DC to lobby President Woodrow Wilson for support of legislation to make lynching a federal crime.

The group was led by NAACP field secretary James Weldon Johnson and included entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker, realtor John Nail, New York Age publisher Fred Moore and Rev. Frederick Cullen. They had been assured of a noon meeting with Wilson, but when they arrived at the White House, they were told he was occupied with other matters. Wilson, who had praised D. W. Griffith’s racist movie, “Birth of a Nation,” and instituted segregation in federal offices, had long displayed his disdain for African Americans and their concerns.

Anti-lynching petition delivered to the White House on August 1, 1917 after the Silent Protest Parade in New York. (Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

Anti-lynching petition delivered to the White House on August 1, 1917 after the Silent Protest Parade in New York. (Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

The delegation presented the petition to Wilson’s secretary, Joseph Tumulty, then traveled up Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill where they met with the few members of Congress who were receptive to their cause. Several months later Congressman Leonidas Dyer — whose St. Louis district was just across the Mississippi River from East St. Louis — introduced a bill that would have required the crime of lynching to be tried in federal court as capital murder. The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on January 26, 1922, but was blocked by a Southern Democratic filibuster in the U.S. Senate and never brought to vote.

Beginning in 1882, more than 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, but to this day not one has been enacted. In 2005, 80 U.S. Senators approved a resolution apologizing for the U. S. government’s failure to enact this legislation. But it was an apology and not a law.

Even in the 21st Century, there was insufficient will to declare that #BlackLivesMatter.

John Shillady Letter to Madam Walker on May 10, 1919 (Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

John Shillady Letter to Madam Walker on May 10, 1919 (Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

The NAACP continued its campaign against lynching. During a mass meeting at Carnegie Hall in May 1919, Madam Walker pledged $5,000 to the anti-lynching fund. In his May 10, 1919 letter to Walker, NAACP secretary John R. Shillady noted that it was “the largest [gift] the Association has ever received.”

For more information about the Silent Protest Parade:

Equal Justice Insitute: “A Century after the Silent Protest Parade, Racial Injustice Persists” (July 28, 2017)

Beinecke Library Display July 2017

Black Americans in Congress: “Anti-Lynching Legislation Renewed”

On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker by A’Lelia Bundles (pp 203-217)


Strategy, Service and Serendipity (5-15-2016) Wilson College Commencement

Yesterday I had the privilege of delivering the commencement speech for Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

A'Lelia Bundles with Wilson College President Barbara Mistick receiving the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

Wilson College President Barbara Mistick presents the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree to A’Lelia Bundles. (Credit: Public Opinion News)

Founded in 1869, Wilson has been a pioneer in women’s education for almost a century and a half. Like many other women’s schools, it faced challenges during the 1970s as more and more colleges and universities went co-ed. But its alumnae and many of its trustees rallied to keep the school open, emerging with innovative new programs in adult education and developing a stellar initiative that embraces mothers with children who live on campus while earning their degrees.

Wilson also is a leader in environmental stewardship and organic agriculture through the work of its Fulton Center for Sustainable Living and is a founding signatory of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment with its pledge to make itself Carbon Neutral by 2040.

My invitation came from Wilson President Barbara Mistick, whom I’d met at a White House women’s event during the Clinton administration and then again some years later in Pittsburgh, where she was president of the Carnegie Library, the city’s large public library system. An entrepreneur and former professor of entrepreneurship and public policy at Carnegie Mellon’s H. J. Heinz School of Public Policy, she is leading a transformation that has included a new science, math and technology center, restoration and expansion of the historic library and a move to coeducation.

Wilson College embraces single parents in an innovative program that allows children to live on campus while parents earn their degrees.

Wilson College embraces single parents in an innovative program that allows children to live on campus while parents earn their degrees. (Credit: Public Opinion News)

I was so impressed with all I saw — from the parents who were determined to earn college degrees as a way to set an example for their children to graduates who are headed to law school and to careers in early childhood education, from the Hankey Center and Archives to “Washed Up,” the Alejandro Duran exhibition in the Sue Davidson Cooley Art Gallery.

Here is my commencement speech.

Strategy, Service and Serendipity: Mapping a Life that Matters 

GREETINGS Class of 2016!

Thank you so much, President Mistick.

Good morning Trustees, Faculty, Administration. Good morning Marybeth, Katelyn and Mit.

I am honored and humbled to receive this honorary degree from Wilson College.

What a glorious day! And finally! Sunshine! Though I could use some gloves and socks right now.

Congratulations Class of 2016!!!

You made it!!!

Congratulations to all the parents and grandparents. Sisters and brothers. Godparents. Aunts and Uncles. Your love and sacrifice made today’s celebration possible. All those hours in mini-vans. All those diapers. All those snarky, annoying teenage conversations when you refrained from going off because you were the adult. Today is the day when all that feels worth the effort!

Holding on to my hat! The wind was pretty fierce during commencement at Wilson College!

Holding on to my hat! The wind was pretty fierce during commencement at Wilson College!

So I read about Sarah Wilson Week! I heard about the Evens and the Odds. The close ties and the friendly rivalries. The song competition that I understand has become more like a shout competition! Class of 2016, you are now officially and forever in the Alumni Society of the Evens! And by the way, I’d love to learn more about the hayride and what goes on at Sarah Wilson’s graveside. I understand there are lots of secrets around that activity!

From the vision of those two Presbyterian ministers in 1869 and the generosity of Sarah Wilson, you now are part of a legacy that has championed women’s education for almost a century and a half. You also are part of an institution that has had the wisdom to evolve by pioneering education for adult learners, by creating a program that embraces single mothers with children and now by welcoming men in full co-education.

Rejuvenation is all around us. The redesigned John Stewart Memorial Library. The beautiful plaza that joins the library with the Arts Building and the Science Center.

As Wilson graduates, you join esteemed alumnae like Attorney Patricia Vail, Class of 1963. A role model for life long learning, she had the confidence to study a new language at 55 and the courage to reinvent herself as an advisor to the Kasakhstan Parliament. She is the personification of a Wilson alumna.

You follow in the footsteps of geneticist Xandra Breakefield, Class of 1964. A professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, she discovered the first marker for the dystonia gene. But what I also love about her story is that she wasn’t afraid to seek the advice of mentors early in her career.

You have the example of Dr. Barbara Tenney, a pediatrician and chairman of Wilson’s board of trustees, who told us last night about her shoestring budget while she was in medical school and how she talked her way into getting free room and board by offering to help her landlord. That kind of persuasiveness is what being a Wilson student means.

Confident. Curious. Smart. Brave. Receptive to new ideas.

Wilson College Commencement in Chambersburg, PA on May 15, 2016 (Credit: Public Opinion News)

Wilson College Commencement in Chambersburg, PA on May 15, 2016 (Credit: Public Opinion News)

Look around you and see the alumni who are here for their 5th and 10th and 25th and 50th reunions. Among them are the women who loved this institution so much they fought back against the forces that wanted to close the doors. Wilson always has believed in second chances and reinvention. The phoenix, after all, is your mascot.

Commencement speeches are when older people stand at a podium and do their best to try to give you the advice they wish someone had given them. Soooooo….When I look out at you and I think about my 22-year old self, I realize I had no clue! And while I know you already know a LOT, may I just suggest that it’s impossible to anticipate all the twists and turns that life will bring. In fact you might pull the covers up over your head and never, ever come out again, if you knew! Though the truth is, many of you already have encountered those punches that life throws. And your presence here today proves that you are resilient.

As I thought about what I would say to you today, I asked myself this question: How REAL am I going to get?!?! Do they really want to know the REAL DEAL?!?! Because it would be very easy to just be that person who gets invited to do the commencement speech because she can color inside the lines. And share a few platitudes. And tell you the road to success is paved with gumdrops and lollipops if you work hard enough.

But as a biographer and a journalist and a woman of a certain age, I realized a long time ago that a life story without flaws and obstacles is not an honest life story. My graduation day – a REALLY long time ago – could not have been more perfect. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a touch of humidity. A great hair day as a matter of fact! As lovely a morning as one could imagine.

My parents – and two family friends who were like mothers to me – had traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to help me celebrate. I already had a job for the summer as a newscaster at a radio station in my home town in Indiana. I had another job waiting for me in Wilmington, Delaware at the DuPont Company in September. I had just learned that I’d been taken off of the wait list at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and was able to defer, which allowed me to save some money. By living in the dorm, I figured I’d even have enough cash to buy cheap tickets for a Broadway show every now and then. And I had a boyfriend I thought was “the one.” Did I say “perfect?” It could not have been more perfect.

Wilson College Commencement May 15, 2016

Wilson College Commencement May 15, 2016

That summer back in Indianapolis was magical. My mother had the most amazing garden. Cucumbers and melons and peppers. Delicious fried green tomatoes. Every morning we’d go outside together and pull weeds and see what had grown overnight. And then we’d ride to work together in her fancy, copper Thunderbird. She would drop me off at the radio station and then she would go off to her job. Perfect. Right? Perfect.

But a year and a half later, when I was in graduate school, my mother died. She’d been diagnosed with lung cancer several months earlier. There was chemotherapy and all the horrible side affects that come with that. And the efforts she and my father made to protect my brothers and me from the reality of what was happening. At 23, the idea that my mother might die was beyond comprehension, outside the realm of possibility. But it happened.

And then a few years later, it was clear that the boyfriend was no longer “the one.” Which at the time seemed like a big problem but which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

So life. Life happens.

Well, at least the job was moving along mostly as planned!

But then what!?!?

When Plan A is no longer an option, you need to move on to Plan B. Life goes on and you need a strategy to get you to the next phase. You pick yourself up and you remember that Wilson phoenix!

My first decade after college was about learning and making mistakes. About figuring out how to budget my money. About realizing I had to pay my own dental bills. About balancing work and play.

I took some job assignments I wasn’t all that excited about because I knew that was the drill to get the experience I needed. I moved half way across the country from New York to the NBC News bureau in Houston, Texas…which I did NOT want to do.

But it was another blessing in disguise! And I got lucky. I was embraced by a group of talented people. I was given opportunities to cover stories I never would have had if I’d stayed in New York. And I was mentored by colleagues who were generous enough to invest in my success.

Wilson College Commencement May 15, 2016 in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania

Wilson College Commencement May 15, 2016 in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania

So here was the strategy I learned. Strive to do a great job every single day. Say yes even when you’d rather say no if there’s an opportunity to learn. Raise your hand to do something no one else wants to do. Be a team player. Carry your own weight. Do not let your colleagues down.

The strategy is this: Do whatever job you have at the time with as much enthusiasm as you can. I know it’s hard to be the new kid on the block. It’s tough to have to do the scut work that comes with entry level positions. But I promise you this: If you over-perform on the minor tasks, someone will notice. And the next time that person needs someone to do a major task, he or she will come find you. And when life happens, you will be prepared.

No one can prevent you from the feeling that comes from having your heart broken! No one can really warn you about a boss who is a jerk! You can’t practice how to respond to someone who is condescending and tries to make you feel insignificant. But you do have control over HOW you respond. And like the Wilson phoenix, you can rise above it all and do what you need to do.

Here’s something else I have learned along the way. Whatever success you achieve must have a purpose beyond the paycheck and the promotion.

As I researched the life of my great-great-grandmother, Madam C. J. Walker, I learned that she was said to be the first self-made American woman millionaire. An amazing accomplishment for a woman in the early 20th century before women even had the right to vote. An incredible feat for an African American when Jim Crow laws blocked progress in every aspect of life from housing to education.

But what makes her life especially meaningful to me is that she employed, educated and empowered thousands of women as her sales agents at a time when their most likely job options would have been to be maids and sharecroppers and washerwomen. She helped them become economically independent so they could buy homes and educate their children.

Wilson College Commencement (Credit: Public Opinion)

Wilson College Commencement (Credit: Public Opinion)

At her first national convention in 1917 – a year before Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics was born –she told them their first duty was to humanity. By that she meant that these women who had come from all over the United States and the Caribbean must give back to their communities. She wanted then to make money, but she also wanted them to take on leadership roles and to be activists. She gave prizes not just to the women who had sold the most products that year, but to the women who had contributed the most to charity in their communities.

So I say to you, when a chance to help others presents itself, raise your hand. I know as Wilson alumnae and alumni you will never let your motivation be just about the money. Instead of asking what’s in it for me, ask “What do I have to offer?” and “What can I contribute?”

The Curran Scholars and those of you who built houses with Habitat for Humanity during Alternative Spring Break know exactly what I’m talking about. In my own life, those volunteer opportunities have led to friendships, to leadership opportunities and to the chance to make a difference. The rewards have been beyond measure.

Soooo…have a strategy. Find ways to be of service. And here’s something else I hope you’ll remember today. Always leave the door open for serendipity. Make space for the chance encounter.

Life happens in ways that can knock you off your feet. But life also happens in ways that can bring you immeasurable joy and connect you to your destiny. One of those moments of serendipity for me was having Phyllis Garland as my advisor in graduate school.

At the time she was the only black woman on the faculty at Columbia’s Journalism School. And I was lucky that she had figured out that I had a connection to Madam Walker because my name A’Lelia was the same as Madam Walker’s daughter. She is the one who insisted that I do research about my family at a time when that was the farthest thing from my mind. But the seeds she planted 40 years ago ultimately became my life’s work.

Wilson College President Barbara Mistick with senior Alexas Ankro (Credit: Hagerstown Herald Mail)

Wilson College President with senior Alexas Ankro (Credit: Hagerstown Herald Mail)

My wish for you is that you find your purpose, that you have successful lives. That you make a contribution. Every generation faces challenges. You have more than your share. Global warming. Income inequality. Tuition debt. To name just a few.

That diploma you now hold in your hand is a passport to expanding your mind and your worldview. As an educated person, you must challenge whatever prejudices and biases you see. Shine a light on bigotry and ignorance. Build bridges rather than walls.

We are counting on you Class of 2016 to rise to the occasion.

My generation needs the ideas you have to offer.

But I also hope there is some wisdom we may offer as well.

As I was preparing for today, I posted a message on my Facebook page and asked friends what advice I should share with you. More than seventy friends offered tips. And given their ages, I think that amounts to a total of at least 4,000 years of collective wisdom

Here are some of the things they wanted you to know:

“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.”

“Be kind and compassionate.”

“If you see someone who lives on the street, buy them sandwiches. Give them clean socks.”

“Love often and deeply.”

“Dispel the myth that someone else will make you happy.”

“Learn how to make the rules because that’s how you change things.”

“Make friends with people you admire so you can learn from them and improve yourself.”

Wilson College Commencement in Chambersburg, PA (May 15, 2016)

Wilson College Commencement in Chambersburg, PA (May 15, 2016)

To all that they have said, I would like to add some thoughts of my own.

Surround yourself with people who have your best interest at heart. Be mindful of the company you keep. Know who is in your posse.

Learn something new every day. One of my go to sources is NPR. I am inspired by TED Talks. I am moved by Story Corps. When I need a lift, those always do the trick.

Avoid credit card debt. Save something from every paycheck. Even if it’s a few dollars. When you get to be my age, it will make a difference.

Vote. Especially this year. Vote! Study the issues and hold elected officials accountable.

And finally….Don’t be a jerk. Don’t be a bully.

When you come back for your 5th and 10th and 25th and 50th reunions, I hope you will be able to say that you have mentored someone, that you have helped someone, that you have done something to make the society more just and more equal.

Each step along the way, I hope that you have danced and sung. I hope that beautiful flowers have bloomed in your gardens and that you have cooked fabulous meals for your friends and family.

I hope that you have created a circle of friends like the one I am blessed to have.

I hope you have a book club that is as wonderful and stimulating and warm as mine.

Oh, and just so you know, everything has worked out just fine. The 30 years with NBC and ABC were beyond fulfilling. I’m almost finished with my fourth book. The REAL “real one” came along in due time. My mother still pops up in my dreams with advice from time to time. My 89-year old dad is in great shape. And I am grateful beyond measure for the gifts I’ve been given and the opportunities to give back.

This is YOUR commencement. It is a beginning, not an end.

With this piece of paper in your hand, you have proven to yourself that you could complete this leg of the journey. There are many more miles to go.

May the wind always be at your back…and when it isn’t, may you muster the fortitude you need to push on.

Class of 2016! The world is yours!

May you have a strategy. May you be of service. May you have more moments of serendipity than you can count!

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 (

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

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

Here’s a link to videos about Madam Walker.

Check out Madam Walker on Facebook.