We all remember where we were on April 4, 1968. We remember when we first heard that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot. We remember learning soon after that he had died. Indeed, that he had been assassinated.
We already had lived through the assassinations of President Kennedy and Malcolm X. We did not know that Robert Kennedy would be killed two months later.
I still can feel the sting. Prickly flares of embarrassment radiate from my ribs. A half-century later, I am isolated and hot. A half-century later, I also am clear that this fiery shame is not justified. But as a teenager, I do not know how to extinguish it. I have no weapons for the battle. It is the fall of 1968. I am in my high school American history class, in an affluent suburb of Indianapolis. I am the only black student in the classroom, in an overwhelmingly white public school, seated at a desk in the center row, halfway down the aisle.
The day’s topic is the Civil War.
On this day, we are reading from the textbook. My eyes lock on a section titled “Negro Slavery.” It is the first time this semester I have seen a reference to people of African descent. The boldface letters blare from the page.
What I remember from that chapter is this: “Slaves” —not “enslaved people,” as scholars now prefer to say, but “slaves” —were “contented” and well cared for by their kind and benevolent masters.
…I don’t yet know about resistance and revolt. None of my textbooks has included Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman. Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass are absent from the curriculum.
…On April 4, 1968, a few months before that history class, I was elected vice president of my school’s student council. Later that day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Celebration quickly turned to anguish.
The next morning, I learned that a few white parents had called the school to complain about the election. For the most part, teachers and school administrators, who had mentored and nurtured me, also shielded me from that nasty parental bigotry. The next spring, when I ran for student council president, there were uncomfortable undercurrents around race and gender. There had never been a black female in that position. Another candidate who had been involved in student government was my opponent. The principal’s son, who had little previous leadership involvement, ran for vice president. During my campaign speech, I was heckled by a handful of students from a corner of the auditorium. I lost by a few votes.
I don’t remember any particular sense of sadness or defeat, perhaps because I understood exactly what had been engineered. I moved on. I spent part of the summer at a camp for high school journalists at Northwestern University, in a decidedly more progressive environment. I began my senior year as co-editor of the newspaper and had my say through my columns. With a white male classmate, I co-founded a Human Relations Council to navigate racial tensions and build alliances in a 3,400-member student body that was less than 5 percent black.
It was a year of turmoil for America and a year of radicalization for me. I began a journey of self-discovery and self-education. At some point, I read W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. That slim volume was an elixir that offered me a combination of intellectual fireworks, historical facts, and much-needed affirmation.
The Burden includes essays by Rochelle Riley, Herb Boyd, Charlene Carruthers, Patrice Gaines, Paula Madison, Julianne Malveaux, Vann Newkirk, Leonard Pitts, Tim Reid, DeWayne Whickham and Tamara Winfrey-Harris.
William Hendry, who was born in Frederick, VA circa 1760, prepared this will in 1838.
In 1838 when William Hendry of Greene County, Tennessee drew up his will, he included this passage: “It is my will and desire that Nancy McEfee have $300 in place of a Mulatto girl named Delfey [that] I once gave her as a legatee and McEfee gave her back and gave her mother a bill of sale for the girl that she might have [a] chance to free her for which above named $300 McEfee holds some obligation to me to be paid at my death.” [McEfee sometimes appears as McFee.]
I’ve written about Delfey (also spelled Delphia) before. She’s one of my maternal great-great-great-grandmothers and was born about 1808. By all accounts, she is the daughter of William Hendry (b. 1760) and Rose (b. 1790), a woman he owned. Because Delphia was his daughter–and because he seems to have promised Rose that he would eventually free Delphia–he made arrangements in this document and in others to carry out that commitment.
William Hendry values “the Mulatto girl named Delfey,” who is his daughter, at $300.
Seeing the $300 valuation made me curious. What would the equivalent amount be today?
It turns out that a valuation can be interpreted in many ways. MeasuringWorth.com, a website that strives to provide accurate historical data on economic aggregates, distinguishes three categories: 1) the cost or value of a commodity 2) income or wealth and 3) a project (an investment or the construction of something like a canal or cable network).
$7,750.00 using the Consumer Price Index
$6,620.00 using the GDP deflator
$68,800.00 using the unskilled wage
$144,000.00 using the Production Worker Compensation
$161,000.00 using the nominal GDP per capita
$3,150,000.00 using the relative share of GDP*
William Hendry’s will was written on June 24, 1838, eight days before he died.
After divvying up his assets to his sons and various other relatives in amounts of $50 for some and $150 for others, Hendry also wrote: “It is my will and desire that the rest of my estate after Sally McCray’s heirs have one hundred and fifty dollars as above named and Nancy McEfee gets her above named $300, which I promised McEfee to leave to her at my death in place of Delfey, the Mulatto girl and for selling Delfey to Rose as she might have a chance to free her…”
Just to put things in perspective: In 1806, two years before Delphia was born, William Hendry sold 45 acres of land in Washington County, Tennessee to a man named David Brown for $150.00. In 1808, a man named Stephen Kirk puchased 202 1/2 acres in Baldwin County, Georgia for $450.00.
So many questions. What a conundrum to own one of your children and to place a value on her as you would a plow or a horse and yet to have bucked custom and provided a legal path for her freedom. What convoluted calculations determined that this child was worth $300 while the bequest to your sons was $50? Who was Nancy McEfee and why was Delphia conveyed to her and then returned?
As I have learned through the years from other Hendry descendants and relatives who have generously shared documents and information, there is much more to Delphia Hendry’s story.
A few months ago, Robert Purvis, reached out to me through Ancestry.com. He and I share William Hendry as a great-great-great-great-grandfather. Robert, who is a descendant of one of Hendry’s sons, directed me to a page on the Race and Slavery Petitions Project website that included a petition filed on October 19, 1833 (five years before William Hendry’s will) for Delphia’s freedom.
Greene County, Tennessee–located in the southeastern corner of the state near North Carolina–in 1888.
Greene County Tennessee Petition 11483304 read: Twenty-five residents of Greene County represent that William Hendrey gave John McFee, his son-in-law, “a Cartin Calored Gal by the name of Delfe” in 1827 and that said McFee “Sold hur to hur mother a black woman for the Sum of thre hundred Dollars”; McFee “gave hur mother a firm bil of Sail for Delfy and She was to Set hur free.” The petitioners point out that said mother cannot emancipate her daughter owing “to an act of the General assembly prohibiting the amancipation of Slaves.” The petitioners therefore pray “your Honourable body to pass a law authorising the County Court of Green to emancipate the sd Delfey.” They further avow that Delfy “is a garl of good Charactor.”
I knew from the emancipation certificate, which my grandfather cherished and had given to me almost forty years ago, that Delphia eventually was freed in 1841, more than two decades before the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. But as the 1833 petition shows, there was incredible resistance to her emancipation.
Delphia Hendry carried this document during the 1840s and 1850s to validate her freedom.
The journey to freedom seems to have been formally set in motion in 1827 when Delphia was 19 years old. It was then, as the 1833 petition says, that William Hendry, gave Delphia (“a certain colored gal by the name of Delfe”) to his son-in-law, John McEfee, husband of Nancy Hendry McEfee, one of his white daughters. McEfee, in turn sold Delphia to her mother, Rose, for $300. McEfee, according to the 1833 petition, then gave Rose “a firm bill of sale” that was to allow Rose to set her daughter free. But because Tennessee had a law “prohibiting the emancipation of slaves,” Rose was prevented from freeing her child.
Delphia Hendry’s Emancipation Certificate finally was issued in 1839 after her father’s death.
Five more years were to pass after Rose’s purchase of Delphia with Delphia still not legally freed. In the 1833 document, 25 residents of Greene County Tennessee signed a petition requesting that the county authorize a law to emancipate Delphia. Even though that law was passed, it would take another nine years before Delphia would be emancipated.
More answers simply bring more questions. How in the world did Rose get $300 in 1827? Or was the $300 a credit Rose somehow had accumulated toward some debt Hendry owed her? Did Hendry give his mulatto daughter to his white daughter and son-in-law to settle a debt? Did his daughter, Nancy Hendry McEfee, urge him to free Delphia, who was her half-sister? Or did Nancy “give her back” because there was some kind of sibling rivalry? Who were the 25–presumably white and free–citizens who vouched for Rose and Delphia?
Delphia Hendry’s great-grandson, Marion R. Perry, preserved her Emancipation Certificate and passed it on to his granddaughter. (www.aleliabundles.com)
I do not have any images of Delphia, only this emancipation document that my grandfather, Marion R. Perry–Delphia’s great-grandson–had preserved and laminated many decades ago.
This photo is of her son, Henderson B. Robinson, my maternal great-great-grandfather, who was born in 1824 when Delphia was 16.
Delphia’s son, Henderson B. Robinson, was elected sheriff of Phillips County, Arkansas during Reconstruction. When he and other black elected officials were pushed from office in 1878, he moved his family to Oberlin, Ohio.
He later would move to Ripley, Ohio (a major stop on the Underground Railroad), to Memphis (where my grandfather said he “worked with Robert Church“–Mary Church Terrell’s father–though I have no details of that) and then to Helena, Arkansas where he would become superintendent of prisons and sheriff of Phillips County, and a member of the Arkansas state legislature during Reconstruction. The home he owned there is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1872 he purchased a 3600 acre farm. After white “Redeemers” pushed African Americans out of elected office in Arkansas and throughout the South in 1878, he moved his family to Ohio and enrolled his children at Oberlin.
In 1880, Henderson Robinson was one of twelve Arkansas delegates to the Republican National Convention. He and 306 of the 756 supported former president Ulysses S. Grant, though James Garfield won the nomination. The Arkansas Democratic Party of that era was composed of men who had ousted black legislators and disenfranchised black voters.
I continue to ponder, to search and to fill in the blanks, not so much about Delphia and Rose and their relationship with William Hendry–which I will never really know–but about how Delphia prepared her son, Henderson, for the world that lay ahead and how Henderson and his wife, Adelaide, taught their children–including my great-grandmother, Ida Robinson Perry–to navigate America during the late 19th century.
H. B. Robinson was a delegate to the 1880 Republican National Convention supporting Ulysses S. Grant.
A’Lelia Bundles is the author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, a biography of one of her great-great-grandmothers that now is in production as an eight-part Netflix series starring Octavia Spencer. She is at work on her fifth book, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, a biography of her great-grandmother. Click here to learn more about Madam Walker.
*Breaking it down in even more detail and comparing the value as a commodity and as income or wealth:COMMODITYThe real price of that commodity is $7,750The labor value of that commodity is $68,800 for an unskilled worker and $144,000 for a production workerThe income value of that commodity is $161,000INCOME OR WEALTH Historic standard of living = $7,750 Economic status = $161,000 Econonic power = $3,150,000
Sometimes writing is like slogging through mud. A vast, clumpy sepia sea that extends beyond the horizon. A molasses thick morass that will be there when the sun goes down and when it comes back up.
That’s what the chapter I’m writing right now feels like. Thigh high mud that clutches my feet and ankles. Mud that’s all over my arms and in my hair and in my cuticles.
But I remind myself that the only way to get to a thinner version of the gunk and muck is to keep moving. The only way to get to higher ground and clearer water is to push ahead on the journey.
With each step, the extraneous words and facts get rinsed away. Each time I edit another draft, I’m closer to replacing an amorphous mass with a manicured lawn and a garden of lillies, roses and poppies.
At the moment, I’m not sure how I’m going to get there. The seventy single-spaced pages–22,000 words–that sit in front of me need to be whittled down to half that length. What I thought was one chapter is insisting that it is two. The writing gods have told me I have no control over this. That I was wrong when I thought I could combine these scenes into one chapter.
They have told me that they have been generous enough to lead me to new material–which at first can just look like more mud–and now I must find the gold nugget, polish it and make jewelry! While I think sometimes they’ve sent me off on tangents and wild goose chases, I have learned to trust them. They’ve told me they’re depending on me to use those revelations to tell some stories that have been forgotten and some truths that have been neglected.
And so I slog along with faith that the final draft–the equivalent of a long, warm shower–is worth the effort.
Anyone who knows me well, knows I’ve been working on a biography of A’Lelia Walker, my great-grandmother and namesake, for more years than I want to admit. After I finished writing On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker--the biography of A’Lelia Walker’s mother–I knew her Harlem Renaissance era story called for an additional book so I could chronicle her life and the lives of her intriguing circle of friends through a new lens.
Research for me is mostly fun and exciting. But writing and editing the first and second and twentieth rough draft of a chapter is challenging. Finding the right word and the right rhythm and the right arc are steps in a painstaking process. Getting to the point where the final draft feels ready for an editor’s eyes is satisfying, but much easier said than done.
Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten knew A’Lelia Walker and captured her personality more accurately than many others who have written about the Harlem Renaissance.
It’s all been worth it, though. Along the way I’ve discovered that A’Lelia Walker–who is best known as the daughter of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker–is very different from the caricature she has become in the minds of many scholars, novelists and playwrights who have written about her during the last three decades. People who actually knew her–contemporaries like Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten–captured her well: Van Vechten in an unpublished New Yorker profile, Hughes in the poem he wrote for her funeral and in his memoir, The Big Sea. In recent years, though, she’s been reduced to the first generation/second generation wealth cliche: “Madam made the money. Her daughter spent the money.”
A’Lelia Walker and her mother, Madam C. J. Walker, with their chauffeur in front of Madam Walker’s Indianapolis home, circa 1914. (Madam Walker Family Archives)
There’s no question that A’Lelia Walker enjoyed the wealth, houses and celebrity she inherited when her mother died in 1919. Yes, she spent a lot of money, but she had a lot of money to spend. To reduce her to a spendthrift who frittered away a fortune is to miss the point of what it meant to be the first black heiress. A narrative that claims she singlehandedly decimated the Walker fortune ignores the context of the Great Depression and the effects the stock market crash had on all American businesses. Like most human beings, she’s more complex–and far more interesting–than the simplistic caricature. She was a big spirit with a charismatic personality. A generous soul. A fashion leader who wore furs, turbans, diamonds and custom made shoes. A social impresario who understood the dramatic gesture, whether she was hosting the president of Liberia for a Fourth of July weekend at Villa Lewaro, her Hudson River estate, or orchestrating the extravagant wedding of her daughter, Mae. She could be regal and she could be entirely down to earth. She had bouts of insecurity because her own accomplishments could never measure up to those of her mother. She had major health problems. She was surrounded by friends who loved her, but also had three unhappy marriages.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that her parties helped define the Harlem Renaissance. From the time she moved to Harlem in 1913, an invitation to her beautifully furnished townhouse on 136th Street near Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X Boulevard) for dinners, dances and recitals seldom was declined. By the time she converted a floor of the house into the legendary Dark Tower in October 1927, she’d been hosting salon-like soirees for more than a decade.
The invitation A’Lelia Walker sent to hundreds of friends when she converted a floor of her 136th Street townhouse into a cultural salon called The Dark Tower in October 1927. (Madam Walker Family Archives)
A’Lelia Walker turns out to be much more a patron of the arts than even I knew when I wrote On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. The conventional wisdom is that the Walker philanthropy ended when Madam Walker died. The truth is A’Lelia Walker contributed to many causes and institutions before and after her mother’s death. She spearheaded a campaign for an ambulance for black soldiers during World War I, donated to the Silent Protest Parade against lynching in 1917 and was the leading fundraiser for the Utopia Neighborhood Children’s Center, a building which later housed the 1963 March on Washington planning offices.
When A’Lelia Walker hosted Liberian President C. D. B. King for a Fourth of July weekend at Villa Lewaro, she hired her friend, Ford Dabney, and his Syncopated Orchestra to provide the music. (Document from the Madam Walker Family Archives)
She regularly hired musicians, photographers, modistes, architects and caterers. She invited theater groups to rehearse in her home and a filmmaker to shoot his movies at her estate at no charge. At various times she let a writer, an actress and a singer stay in one of the apartments in her townhouse rent free. Ford Dabney, whose orchestra performed nightly at Florenz Ziegfeld’s Rooftop Garden during the 1910s, was among the many musicians who played for her parties. She commissioned photographers like R. E. Mercer, James Latimer Allen and James Van Der Zee. And of course as president of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, she was a regular advertiser in black newspapers throughout the country.
During the early 1920s she spent five months abroad. In Paris she stayed in a suite at the Hotel Carlton on the Champs-Elysees near the Arc de Triomphe and was invited to a private showing at Cartier. She attended the opera at Covent Garden in London, witnessed the coronation of the Pope in Rome, toured the pyramids in Egypt on camelback and had an audience with Empress Zauditu in Addis Ababa.
In the process of doing the research that has provided all these facts, I’ve started joking that writing biography is a form of insanity. Temporary insanity, I hope, but insanity nonetheless because of the immersion it requires in another time and in another person’s psyche. Learning what makes A’Lelia Walker tick and figuring out as much as possible about the people who were important to her has required a great deal of detective work: Combing through newspaper articles in dozens of digitized databases. Transcribing and annotating thousands of pages of letters and business records. Re-visiting hundreds of files from my research of the last four decades. Reading scores of books on everything from early twentieth century American theater and the history of boxing to World War I black soldiers and Prohibition. I’m never satisfied until I’ve looked under every rock, followed every lead to its end, verified the facts. I’m obsessive about detail. I’m allergic to taking what others have written at face value, even scholars whose work I admire and appreciate. My long career as a journalist makes me want to know not just one primary source and but a verifying second one.
My books are spread all over the house. While I’m writing Joy Goddess, I’ve moved the biographies about A’Lelia Walker’s friends and contemporaries to the bookshelf directly behind my desk. (Photo by A’Lelia Bundles)
The research materials I’ve gathered during the last four decades are organized in thousands of folders. These are some of the files with biographical information of people who knew A’Lelia Walker and Madam Walker.
I often fret about how long it takes me to get each chapter into shape, but there’s too much at stake when writing the first major biography of someone like A’Lelia Walker not to get it right. I can’t claim that she had the creative talent of a Florence Mills or a Langston Hughes, so this is a different kind of biography. More a story of someone who personified her times, who came into contact with just about everybody worth knowing in 1920s Harlem, who provided the setting and atmosphere for the others to be themselves and whom many people wanted to meet. In that sense, it’s a biography of a group of people and the scene they created in a certain place and time. There had never been a such a community of black people with so much talent, so many options, so much potential in such a concentrated few square blocks.
A’Lelia Walker counted among her friends a group of elegant pioneers, talented artists, world-renowned musicians, successful entrepreneurs, global travelers, socialites. Originals who created a parallel world in a nation that didn’t fully appreciate all they had to offer. Sophisticates who transformed their corner of Manhattan into the center of a particularly fascinating universe. She lived from 1885 to 1931, but her legacy was in tact several decades later when old time Harlemites still remembered her parties as the best of a very lively, very culturally exciting, sometimes risque era.