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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information about the Silent Protest Parade:

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

Beinecke Library Display July 2017

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

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

 

Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes! (A’Lelia Walker and Langston Hughes)

Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes and Happy Black History Month 2016!

For my A’Lelia Walker biography, I’m in the midst of simultaneously writing three connected chapters right now focused on late 1925 through 1926 about white novelist and music critic Carl Van Vechten’s entrance into Harlem and how the community above 125th Street begins to pivot from being inward and self-affirming — and comfortable with that — to the insertion of and fascination by the white downtown, Prohibition-era gaze.

There’s a lot more that I’d say if I had more time this evening, but I didn’t want to let Langston’s birthday and the beginning of Black History Month pass without taking the opportunity to forecast some of what I’m discovering about A’Lelia Walker’s relationship with Langston.

I am very, very grateful to Langston Hughes for giving me a biographical profile and interpretation of A’Lelia Walker that has guided me for many years as I have learned about her and researched her life.

Langston's The Big Sea, Arnold Rampersad's The Life of Langston Hughes Volume I and Emily Bernard's Remember Me to Harlem

Langston’s The Big Sea, Arnold Rampersad’s The Life of Langston Hughes Volume I and Emily Bernard’s Remember Me to Harlem

Here’s what Hughes wrote in his memoir, The Big Sea: “It was a period when local and visiting royalty were not at all uncommon in Harlem. And when the parties of A’Lelia Walker, the Negro heiress, were filled with guests whose names would turn any Nordic social climber green with envy.”

His description of one of the parties she hosted in her 80 Edgecombe Avenue apartment captures the spirit of the era: “A’Lelia Walker was the then great Harlem party giver, although Mrs. Bernia Austin fell but little behind…At her “at homes” Negro poets and Negro number bankers mingled with downtown poets and seat-on-the-stock-exchange racketeers…A’Lelia Walker was a gorgeous dark Amazon…A’Lelia Walker was the joy-goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.”

What he wrote has been critical to me because many authors and scholars have written about her in a quite two-dimensional manner. But Langston knew her, so I am inclined to give more credence to his interpretation.

Langston Hughes's "The Weary Blues" was published in 1926 after Carl Van Vechten introducer Hughes to Alfred Knopf.

Langston Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” was published in 1926 after Carl Van Vechten introducer Hughes to Alfred Knopf.

My research of the last decade for my in-progress book, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, has allowed me to track when they met.

On January 31, 1926 –when A’Lelia Walker couldn’t attend Langston’s book signing at the Shipwreck Inn at 107 Claremont Avenue near Columbia University — she gave mutual friend and author Wallace Thurman two copies of Langston’s new book, The Weary Blues, with a request for him to autograph them for her.

A few days later, Thurman wrote to Hughes: ““Dear Langston. . .Madam Walker was tickled pink over your inscription. She just must meet you, and will try to arrange to do so as soon as you return.”

In late February, Hughes wrote to Van Vechten about an upcoming trip to New York (from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where he was still a student): “I think I’ll be in New York Friday. Of course, I want to come see you sometime during the weekend, if you’ll let me…and also this trip I am supposed to meet A’Lelia Walker. Last time, she sent two books for me to autograph for her, but I didn’t’ get to see her.”

Between 1926 and 1931, Hughes attended many of A’Lelia Walker’s parties at her Edgecombe Avenue apartment and at The Dark Tower on 136th Street. On March 1, 1930,  he sent this postcard to her from Havana, Cuba, a place they both loved. ” Dear A’Lelia — I think you would adore Havana. (Have you been here?) The people are marvelous, bars and dance halls everywhere and a too-bad beach. All the leading artists and writers and actresses are treating me royally.” A’Lelia Walker, indeed, had been to Cuba in 1918.Langston postcard to A'LW WM

When A’Lelia Walker died in August 1931, Langston Hughes wrote this poem, which was read at her funeral.

To learn more about A’Lelia Walker, please check out some of these blog articles about her

A’Lelia Walker and Atlantic City 1924

Discovering The Joy Goddess of Harlem

Langston Hughes- tribute poem to A'Lelia Walker

Happy 148th Birthday to Madam C. J. Walker!

Today — December 23, 2015 — is the 148th anniversary of Madam C. J. Walker’s birth!

She was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana on the same planation where her parents Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove had been enslaved. The first child in her family to be born after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, her birth was greeted with much hope and promise. But the Breedlove family’s reality was bleak. Watermark Delta Cabin (www.aleliabundles.com)

By the time Sarah was seven years old, both parents had died. At ten, she moved across the Mississippi River to Vicksburg, Mississippi with her older sister, Louvenia, and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell, who was so cruel, she would later say, that she “married at 14 to get a home of my own.” Another blow came with the death of her husband, Moses McWilliams, when she was 20. Now with her two-year old daughter, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia Walker) to raise, she moved up the river to St. Louis, Missouri where her older brothers worked as barbers.

 

She struggled for the next decade working as a laundress, doing the back-breaking work of washing clothes by hand in tubs and without indoor plumbing. At the end of some weeks, she’d made as little as $1.50, but her dreams for her daughter made her persevere. One day while her hands were buried deep in soap suds, she despaired that life might never get better. But the solution to her problems eventually came when she developed a shampoo and ointment to heal the scalp disease that was causing her to go bald.

Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro in May 1919.

Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro in May 1919.

By the time she died on May 25, 1919 at Villa Lewaro (her mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York), she had founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company and become a millionaire, some say the first self-made American woman to attain that level of financial success.

 

There is much more to her story of course. How she discovered, developed and marketed her “Wonderful Hair Grower.” How she employed thousands of women as Walker sales agents and beauty culturists. How she spoke up to Booker T. Washington at his 1912 National Negro Business League Convention. How she gathered more than 200 women together for one of America’s first national conventions of women entrepreneurs in 1917. Her prominence as a philanthropist and patron of the arts. Her friendships with Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune and James Weldon Johnson among others. Her $1,000 contribution to Indianapolis’s YMCA and $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign. Her activism on behalf of black soldiers, young women and the rights of African Americans.

 

Her legacy of entrepreneurship and philanthropy still empowers others. She is often mentioned by businesswomen in America and beyond as an inspiration. Her company is discussed and critiqued in a Harvard Business School course. Dozens of students across the nation prepare projects about her every year for National History Day. Countless young girls have dressed up as Madam Walker for Black History Month and Women’s History Month. She is the subject of numerous documentaries, public service announcements and news stories. Several organizations host annual Madam Walker awards luncheons. The Madam Walker Collection of photographs, letters and business records is the most popular collection at the Indiana Historical Society. She was featured on a U. S. postage stamp in 1998. Recently her name was touted as contender for the $20 bill. There are two National Historic Landmarks associated with her life: Villa Lewaro in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York and the Madam Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Here are some of the books in which she has been featured or mentioned in the last couple of years. IMG_1275

Angella M. Nazarian’s Visionary Women (Assouline Publishers)

Cynthia L. Greene’s Entrepreneurship: Ideas in Action (Cengage Learning)

Faith Ringgold’s Harlem Renaissance Party (Amistad)

James J. Madison and Lee Ann Sandweiss’s Hoosiers and the American Story (Indiana Historical Society)

Martin Kilson’s Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia 1880 – 2012 (Harvard University Press)

Diane Radmacher’s Famous Firsts of St. Louis: A Celebration of Facts, Figures, Food & Fun

As we approach the 150th anniversary of her birth, we can say there are more exciting announcements to come in the new year. Stay tuned!

 

Other blog posts that might interest you

A Family Perspective:  Celebrating Madam Walker’s Legacy

Madam Walker’s 1917 Convention: Entrepreneurship and Protest Politics

Madam Walker’s Mansion: The Future of Villa Lewaro

Madam Walker’s August Garden

Woodlawn Cemetery — Burial Place of Madam Walker — Designated National Historic Landmark

Madam Walker Visits the Brothers Dumas in Mississippi

Madam Walker Black History Month 2013

 

To learn more about Madam Walker, visit our official Madam C. J. Walker website at 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.