Yesterday I had the privilege of delivering the commencement speech for Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
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. (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!
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)
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
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
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)
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 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)
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
During the week of October 19, 2014 the National Trust for Historic Preservation featured Villa Lewaro, Madam Walker’s Irvington-on-Hudson, New York estate, on all its social media platforms. This piece that I wrote for the Trust’s Preservation Blog also appeared on Huffington Post and Jet.com
Inside Villa Lewaro, Madam C. J. Walker’s Irvington-on-Hudson, NY mansion (David Bohl/Historic New England)
Every time I walk through the doors of Villa Lewaro—the mansion my great-great-grandmother, Madam C. J. Walker, called her “dream of dreams”—I always take a moment to imagine the pride and magic the ancestors must have felt in these rooms. From the columns of the majestic portico to the balustrades of the grand terrace, the original stucco façade sparkled with marble dust and glistening grains of white sand when the laundress-turned-millionaire took possession in May 1918.
Villa Lewaro 1920s
The New York Times pronounced it “a place fit for a fairy princess.” Enrico Caruso, the world famous opera tenor, was so entranced by its similarity to estates in his native Naples that he coined the name “Lewaro” in honor of A’Lelia Walker Robinson, Madam Walker’s only daughter.
Walker told her friend Ida B. Wells, the journalist and anti-lynching activist, that after working so hard all her life—first as a farm laborer, then as a maid and a cook, and finally as the founder of an international hair care enterprise—she wanted a place to relax and garden and entertain her friends.
She also wanted to make a statement, so it was no accident that she purchased four and a half acres in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York not far from Jay Gould’s Lyndhurst and John D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit amidst America’s wealthiest families. She directed Vertner Woodson Tandy—the black architect who already had designed her opulent Harlem townhouse—to position the 34-room mansion close to the village’s main thoroughfare so it was easily visible by travelers en route from Manhattan to Albany.
Villa Lewaro Aerial (Courtesy Madam Walker Family Archives)
Indeed, the Times reported that her new neighbors were “puzzled” and “gasped in astonishment” when they learned that a black woman was the owner. “Impossible!” they exclaimed. “No woman of her race could afford such a place.”
The woman born in 1867 in a dim Louisiana sharecropper’s cabin on the banks of the Mississippi River, now awoke each morning in a sunny master suite with a view of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades. The child who had crawled on dirt floors now walked on carpets of Persian silk. The destitute washerwoman, who had lived across the alley from the St. Louis bar where Scott Joplin composed ragtime tunes, now hosted private concerts beneath shimmering chandeliers in her gold music room.
But the home was not constructed merely for her personal pleasure. Villa Lewaro, she hoped, would inspire young African Americans to “do big things” and to see “what can be accomplished by thrift, industry and intelligent investment of money.”
“Do not fail to mention that the Irvington home, after my death, will be left to some cause that will be beneficial to the race—a sort of monument,” she instructed her attorney, F. B. Ransom. As the largest contributor to the fund that saved Frederick Douglass’s Anacostia home, Cedar Hill, she understood the importance of preservation as a strategy to claim and influence history’s narrative.
Invitation to the August 1918 Villa Lewaro gathering honoring Emmett Scott (Courtesy Madam Walker Family Archives)
For her opening gathering in August 1918, Madam Walker honored Emmett Scott, then the Special Assistant to the U. S. Secretary of War in Charge of Negro Affairs and the highest ranking African American in the federal government. At this “conference of interest to the race”—with its Who’s Who of black Americans and progressive whites—she encouraged discussion and debate about civil rights, lynching, racial discrimination and the status of black soldiers then serving in France during World War I. After a weekend of conversation, collegiality and music provided by J. Rosamond Johnson—co-composer of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”—and Joseph Douglass, master violinist and grandson of Frederick Douglass, Scott wrote to her, “No such assemblage has ever gathered at the private home of any representative of our race, I am sure.”
After Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro on May 25, 1919—barely a year after moving in—her daughter continued the tradition of hosting events, occasionally opening the home for public tours to honor Walker’s legacy. Later dubbed the “joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” by poet Langston Hughes because of her impressive soirees, A’Lelia Walker feted Liberian President Charles D. B. King and his entourage in 1921 with a Fourth of July fireworks display and concert by the Ford Dabney Orchestra. In November 1923, limousines lined Broadway as several hundred bejeweled and fancily dressed wedding reception guests arrived from Harlem’s St. Philips Episcopal Church where my grandmother Mae had married her first husband, Dr. Gordon Jackson. The following summer, more than 400 sales agents and cosmetologists journeyed from all over the United States and the Caribbean for the eighth annual convention of the Madam Walker Beauty Culturists Union.
A’Lelia Walker in Villa Lewaro’s Music Room (Courtesy of Madam Walker Familly Archives)
In the late 1970s, as I was beginning to research the Walker women’s lives, I made my first visit to the house. Sold soon after A’Lelia Walker’s death in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression, it had been a retirement home for elderly white women for several decades. Even with its beauty then obscured and its furnishings meager, I still could see the lingering grandeur in the hand-painted murals and the marble stairs. When I interviewed blues legend Alberta Hunter a few years later, she told tales of elegant weekend parties and of playing the Estey organ as she gently awakened the other guests.
Through the years I’ve watched as ownership has moved from the Companions of the Forest to Ingo and Darlene Appel and then to Harold and Helena Doley. They all have been stewards in their own caring way. For more than two decades, the Doleys have invested considerable resources and patience to restore the home and the grounds, even hosting a designer show house benefitting the United Negro College Fund in 1998.
In May 1922 the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Rockefellers Brothers Fund hosted a gathering of preservationists, developers and entrepreneurs to discuss the future of Villa Lewaro.
Among the earliest and most notable mansions built and owned by an African American and by an American woman entrepreneur, Villa Lewaro is one of the few remaining tangible symbols of the astonishing progress made by the generation born just after Emancipation and the Civil War. Without this evidence, our history can be intentionally misinterpreted and easily dismissed. Having walls to touch and doors to open helps our children and grandchildren verify the ancestors’ accomplishments and connect themselves to their rich heritage.
It is vital that we work to find ways to imagine Villa Lewaro’s future so that it can continue to inspire others and to be, as Madam Walker dreamed “a monument to brains, hustle and energy…and a mile stone in the history of a race’s advancement.”
To support these efforts, please click here to sign the pledge to preserve Madam Walker’s Villa Lewaro and here to make a monetary donation through the National Trust.
A’Lelia Bundles is Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. Her website is www.aleliabundles.com
So finally I am finished with the two chapters (for my forthcoming book Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance) that focus on A’Lelia Walker’s November 1921 to April 1922 trip abroad. It’s a good thing I didn’t know how long it was going to take or I might have abandoned the whole project!
Some pages from early drafts of the chapters about A’Lelia Walker’s 1921-1922 trip abroad. Refining the voluminous research into readable prose is always a challenge!
But writing biography is like that. You just never know where the trail is going to lead and once you’ve picked up the scent, you really do have to follow it until you’ve bagged the bird, so to speak.
In addition to the articles that appeared in several newspapers about her trip, I also am fortunate to have twenty or so letters that her third husband, Dr. James Arthur Kennedy, was writing to her while she was overseas. At the time she still was married to–though very much estranged from–her second husband. My favorite line in one of Kennedy’s letters is: “May the path of your return be strewn with a thousand rose petals leading to the circumference of my arms.”
A’Lelia Walker’s third husband, Dr. James Kennedy, wrote several letters to her while she was abroad in 1921 and 1922. (From Madam Walker Family Archives)
Yeah, yeah, maybe it’s a little much, but as the old folks used to say, “Honey hush!”
I’d really intended for A’Lelia Walker’s four month trip to Paris, Nice, Monte Carlo, Naples, Rome, Cairo, Jerusalem, Djibouti, Addis Ababa and London to be one chapter. I figured I could do her “eat, pray, love” thing in twenty or so pages, but it soon became apparent that her voyage on the SS Paris in November 1921 was a chapter all its own because of the other interesting characters who were on board and the subtext of what it meant to be a black woman in first class on one of the world’s most luxurious ocean liners in the early twentieth century.
And then her escapades in Paris–where she knew black American musicians who were already there in 1921 before Josephine Baker and Bricktop arrived and where she stayed in one of the city’s premiere hotels near the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysees–took on a life of its own as I had to check and double check the details of the lives of people who were very important then but who are almost entirely forgotten now.
A’Lelia Walker stayed at a luxury hotel on the Champs-Elysees near the Arc de Triomphe in 1921
I knew she’d met Paul Poiret, the famous coutourier of the era, but didn’t know she’d likely crossed paths with Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett, the famous chanteuse, or Sidney Bechet or Dooley Wilson, who later became famous when he sang “As Time Goes By” in “Casablanca.” People like Louis Mitchell and Mazie Mullins are names most people don’t know any more, but they were very much a part of the black expatriate music community in 1921.
Suez Canal at Kantara (Quantara) circa 1922
I knew she’d traveled by boat through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea and on to Djibouti en route to Addis Ababa to visit Ethiopian Empress Zauditu in March 1922, but it took additional research to learn that the French–with the permission of Zauditu’s father, Emperor Menelik II–had constructed a very modern railroad linking interior Ethiopia to the east coast of Africa. (I owe thanks to French author Hugues Fontaine who wrote the book “Un Train en Afrique” and whose website http://www.africantrain.org/ provided invaluable information.)
I should have known the Joy Goddess did not make that trip on the back of a mule!
On the bridge over Gotha between Djibouti and Addis Ababa.
I’ve included a photo of some of the pages from my rough drafts of this chapter. I know I must have done 20 or more drafts. I know I’ve finished a draft–or at least polished it enough for an editor to review–when the paper is no longer covered with red and purple ink!
At the 1916 coronation of Ethiopian Empress Zauditu, whom A’Lelia Walker visited in Addis Ababa in March 1922.
So now, I am on to the next chapter which sets the stage for the dawn of the cultural explosion that will become known as the Harlem Renaissance.
A’Lelia Bundles is the author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, a biography of her great-great-grandmother, who is the mother of A’Lelia Walker. For more information about Madam Walker, please visit www.madamcjwalker.com
Maya Angelou is with the ancestors. Born in 1928, she died peacefully this morning in her own home. She was 86 years old.
She was a force. A pioneer. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise” were staples for many of us black girls and young women as we learned to discover our gifts and our potential. She taught us that our stories and our lives had meaning in a world that didn’t value those stories.
She lived a life without limitation. Poet. Calypso dancer. Actress. Journalist. Streetcar conductor. Activist. Educator. Memoirist. Mother. Daughter. Friend. Humanitarian. Woman of the world. She made it all seem possible.
She was dignity personified. Always regal. Sometimes haughty. Occasionally over the top according to folks who booked her for speeches and who groused about her fees and the special items her contract required. (Was the story about the rider requesting 30 year old cognac true or apocryphal? If Van Halen could ban brown M&Ms in his green room, then Angelou could have something that made her smile whether it was cognac or roses!) That rumor, and the way she carried herself, were the source of caricatures in recent years. How dare a little black girl speak with such precision and carry herself with such grace? Well, dare she did.
Maya Angelou was dignity personified.
She famously was said to correct people she didn’t already know who addressed her as “Maya.” She quickly informed them: “I am ‘Dr. Angelou’ to you.”
But she also was generous with her time and her encouragement. Her conversation with Dave Chappelle on Sundance’s “Iconoclasts” is classic.
She had earned the right to be haughty and demanding and respected. She was a child of small town Arkansas, raised by a grandmother who assured a black girl growing up during the Depression in a very, very racist place that she was worthy, important and talented. Her character had been forged by pain and hardship and moments of unspeakable abuse. And yet she gave voice to the unspeakable so others would have courage.
A’Lelia Bundles with Alex Haley and Maya Angelou on Alex Haley’s farm in Clinton, TN circa 1990
I can not claim to have known her well, but we met 25 years ago on Alex Haley’s farm during one of his weekend gatherings. At the time he was planning a book and mini-series about my great-great-grand mother, Madam C. J. Walker. Ms. Angelou would have played a composite character of two of Madam Walker’s friends I had discovered in my research about her for my book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.
One of my favorite memories from that weekend was seeing Ms. Angelou and one of the other guests
Guests at Alex Haley’s Farm circa 1990 include Alex Haley, A’Lelia Bundles, Maya Angelou, Louis Gossett, Jr. and Glynn Turman.
jitterbugging while actor Glynn Turman played the harmonica. In that moment, we were transported to a juke joint filled with laughter and delight. We felt the ancestors smiling with us and upon us. I’m imagining them welcoming her tonight with just such a party.
“Going down a rabbit hole.” People use this phrase to mean many different things. For anyone whose writing requires research, it usually means following clues until enough dots are connected to create a credible scene.
And when writing nonfiction, it really is important not to make assumptions, because, as they say “truth is more interesting than fiction.” Or as Mark Twain wrote: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”
Alice Down the Rabbit Hole from fc00.deviantart.net
The “rabbit hole” phrase comes from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” when Alice spies the White Rabbit checking his pocket watch. Curious and intrigued, she follows behind “just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”
She just HAD to know more. Her curiosity compelled her to follow. And, like Alice, one never knows exactly how one is going to “get out again.” But plunge ahead one must. Irrationally. Illogically. And with the faith that the answer one is seeking is somewhere in that tunnel.
This is the same searing, flaming curiosity that hit me a few days ago. That has kept me up past 2 a.m. for more than a few nights as I work on Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, the first major biography of my great-grandmother.
SS Paris departs New York’s Pier 57 in lower Manhattan
I really thought I had everything I needed to finish the chapter about A’Lelia Walker’s trip to Europe and Africa…and then I realized just what a fascinating cast of characters were on board the ship with her and whom she would see in the first class dining room and lounge during her five day voyage from Pier 57 in New York to Le Havre.
Among the passengers is the independent, iconoclastic daughter of one America’s wealthiest men; the spoiled, ne’er-do-well grandson of another billionaire; a celebrated Italian opera singer returning to La Scala; the sister of one of America’s most powerful politicians, who like many young women of her era married a titled European; the editor of one of America’s most important papers and the Prime Minister of France.
Anne Morgan, daughter of J. Pierpont Morgan, traveled on the SS Paris in November 1921
To my surprise there are mutual friendships, interests and serendipitous coincidences that link A’Lelia Walker to almost all of these people.
What was it like to be the only black woman in first class on the most luxurious ocean liner of the day? How was she treated? With whom did she interact? How did she spend her days and her evenings? She surely did not go unnoticed. One French newspaper reporter said some wondered, as she strolled along the deck for her afternoon walk, if she were a princess. “Her life is a mystery, others say, as they examine her and her dazzling diamonds and pearls,” he wrote.
And now having gone down the rabbit hole, I have what I need. I wish I had diaries and journals, but I don’t. But I have what I need.
A’Lelia Walker traveled to Europe, Africa and the Middle East from November 1921 to April 1922 (Photo: Madam Walker Family Archives)
So imagine, if you will, A’Lelia Walker standing at the top of the stairwell of the great hall in the photo below, looking down at her fellow first class passengers and contemplating with whom she wishes to spend her evening. Will she play bridge? Will she speak with the opera singer about her love of music? Will she find a common thread with the other women on board who volunteered with the Red Cross during the war?
Oh, I am soooo very eager to tell you all I know!!
The Great Hall for first class passengers on the SS Paris. Imagining A’Lelia Walker on the landing surveying the room and contemplating how she would spend her evening.