I’ve written a lot about Madam C. J. Walker’s professional and financial achievements, but to truly understand who she was at her core, I’ve also examined her relationships with other women: her mentors, her sister friends and her rivals.
Madam C. J. Walker circa 1913 (Madam Walker Family Archives/aleliabundles.com)
Madam Walker is perhaps best known as a millionaire entrepreneur and hair care industry pioneer, who defied the odds. Behind that public persona is a more private person who valued and benefited from her friendships with other women.
This is not to ignore the men in her life. Her three brief marriages – one husband died and the other two cheated on her – surely motivated her to be self-sufficient. She made much wiser choices in selecting her male business associates, especially Freeman B. Ransom, the attorney who became the Walker Company’s longtime general manager. And she valued business and political collaborations with men like Indianapolis Freeman publisher George Knox, Crisis editor W. E. B. Du Bois, Tuskegee Institute principal Booker T. Washington, musician James Reese Europe and Messenger publisher A. Philip Randolph.
Madam C. J. Walker Mfg. Co. Atty F. B. Ransom circa 1912 (Madam Walker Family Archives)
And of course her relationship with her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, is central to understanding what made her tick. (I’ve written about this in On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker and will have much more to say in my in-progress book, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance.)
A’Lelia Walker, daughter of Madam C. J. Walker (Madam Walker Family Archives)
But it is Madam Walker’s early experiences of being helped by other women that made her so devoted to empowering her sales agents and to supporting causes and organizations that helped girls and women. “I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself, for I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race,” she said at the 1914 National Negro Business League Convention.
In 1917, at the first national convention of the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culturists Union, she implored the delegates to use part of their earnings to better their communities. “I want my agents to feel that their first duty is to humanity,” she said. “Let the world know that the Walker agents are ready to do their bit to help and advance the best interests of the Race.”
When Sarah Breedlove McWilliams moved from Vicksburg, Mississippi to join her older brothers in St. Louis in 1888, she was a 20-year old widow with a two-year old daughter. It was the women of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Mite Missionary Society who helped her see that she could aspire to something more than a life of drudgery as a washerwoman.
Jessie Batts Robinson, St. Louis teacher and clubwoman, who mentored Madam Walker (Madam Walker Family Archives)
Jessie Batts Robinson, a schoolteacher and St. Paul’s member, took a particular interest in Sarah and her daughter. The home Jessie shared with her husband (and St. Louis Argus editor), Christopher “C. K.” Robinson, was a refuge for the struggling young mother. As national officers of the Knights of Pythias and the Court of Calanthe, they exposed Sarah to the powerful network of black fraternal organizations.
After she founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1906, Madam Walker intentionally surrounded herself with skilled and educated employees. She had a talent for identifying leaders and encouraging them to shine. Aware that her own lack of formal education could be a hindrance, she sought employees who could help shore up her deficits. She considered it a coup that Alice Kelly, dean of girls at Kentucky’s Eckstein Norton Institute, agreed to join the Walker Company as “forelady” – or manager – of her factory.
Kelly also served as her private tutor and sometimes traveling companion. Violet Davis Reynolds, who began working at the Walker Company as a secretary in 1914, later described the role Kelly played in helping Walker polish her presentations: “Whenever I traveled with them, I remember Madam asking Miss Kelly immediately after her speech, ‘How did I do? How can I do better?’”
Alice Kelly, Manager of the Madam Walker Factory (Madam Walker Family Archives)
That desire to improve – from her handwriting to her grammar – was critical to her success.
As with any successful entrepreneur, Madam Walker also had competitors, most notably Annie Turnbo Pope Malone. It is true that Sarah Breedlove McWilliams sold Malone’s Poro products for about a year in St. Louis and then in Denver. Not long after she married Charles Joseph “C. J.” Walker in early 1906, there was a rift of some kind between the two women that caused Madam Walker to sever ties with Malone. By April of 1906 Madam Walker was selling her own line of hair care products.
I’ve written about this fissure in On Her Own Ground and will write in more detail about this posthumous rivalry in a forthcoming blog article, but some of the claims about whether and when Malone became a millionaire are impossible to document. We are fortunate that F. B. Ransom and Violet Reynolds were such conscientious record keepers. As a result, thousands of pages of Madam Walker’s personal and business correspondence are preserved at the Indiana Historical Society. There is no comparable set of records for Annie Malone or the Poro Company.
After decades of research, I’ve come to believe that the relationship with Malone was an important catalyst that helped Sarah Breedlove McWilliams escape St. Louis and a troubled second marriage. But I’ve also come to think the relationship was more transactional than collaborative.
Both women were successful entrepreneurs and philanthropists whose legacies are important in the history of American business. But these two women made very different decisions about how they ran their businesses, the people they chose to put in leadership positions and their marketing strategies.
The women whom Madam Walker would have named as her mentors are Jessie Batts Robinson and Alice Kelly. Among those she truly admired and counted as friends were women like anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, Mary Burnett Talbert (the NAACP organizer and former National Association of Colored Women president who led the drive to preserve Frederick Douglass’s home) and educator Mary McLeod Bethune.
Ultimately Madam Walker’s story is one of women empowering and supporting each other, then using their leadership and financial profits to better their communities and the lives of their families.
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.
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.
1917 Convention of Madam Walker agents in Philadelphia (Madam Walker Family Archives)
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).
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.”
“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.
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 (mcjwbeautyculture.com)
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!
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!
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
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.
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.