One of my favorite parts of writing a book is the research. You truly never know where a photograph, a newspaper clipping or a faded letter will lead you. When I started my research for On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker almost 40 years ago, I knew very little about Madam Walker’s childhood as Sarah Breedlove or of the Breedlove family’s life on the R. W. Burney plantation in Delta, Louisiana. I visited Delta for the first time in 1980 as I was moving from Houston to Atlanta. Years later, at the suggestion of Gordon Cotton, the former head of the Old Couthouse Museum in Vicksburg, I visited the National Archives and asked for the records of the post Civil War U.S. Southern Claims Commission. In those files, I discovered a trove of Civil War Union Army records related to a hospital and a freedman’s camp on the Burney plantation during the Siege of Vicksburg and right after the war. The discovery provided exactly the clues I needed to recreate the environment of Sarah Breedlove’s childhood.
Recently I was invited to be a part of the National Archives’s new video series, “Inside the Vaults,” and had a chance to revisit some of those documents and discuss their impact on my story.