Madam C. J. Walker’s story has always deserved an expansive loom on which to weave the threads of her legendary life with the broad themes and major events of American history. As my great-great-grandmother’s biographer–and as a journalist who loves a well-told story–I consider it to be my good fortune both that she was born in 1867 on the plantation where General Ulysses S. Grant staged the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg and that one of her brothers joined other former slaves in the 1879 mass exodus to the North from Louisiana and Mississippi. I could not have fabricated a more perfect scenario than her confrontation with Booker T. Washington at his 1912 National Negro Business League convention or her 1916 arrival in Harlem on the eve of America’s entry into World War I. I could not have invented her 1917 visit to the White House to protest lynching or her decision to build a mansion near the Westchester County estates of John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould. Certainly when I learned that she had been considered a “Negro subversive” in 1918 and been put under surveillance by a black War Department spy, I was convinced that reality indeed was more interesting than most fiction.
It has surely been a bonus for me that Madam Walker knew so many of the other African American luminaries of her time because the work of their biographers has provided invaluable guidance. From the correspondence, papers and books of anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, educators Mary McLeod Bethune and Booker T. Washington, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People executive secretary James Weldon Johnson, Crisis editor W. E. B. Du Bois, labor leader A. Philip Randolph and others, I have been able to resurrect long-forgotten relationships.
As a pioneer of the modern cosmetics industry and the founder of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, Madam Walker created marketing schemes, training opportunities and distribution strategies as innovative as those of any entrepreneur of her time. As an early advocate of women’s economic independence, she provided lucrative income for thousands of African American women who otherwise would have been consigned to jobs as farm laborers, washerwomen and maids. As a philanthropist, she reconfigured the philosophy of charitable giving in the black community with her unprecedented contributions to the YMCA and the NAACP. As a political activist, she dreamed of organizing her sales agents to use their economic clout to protest lynching and racial injustice. As much as any woman of the twentieth century, Madam Walker paved the way for the profound social changes that altered women’s place in American society.
My personal journey to write On Her Own Ground, the first comprehensive biography of my great-great-grandmother, really began before I could read. The Walker women–Madam, her daughter A’Lelia Walker and my grandmother Mae Walker–were already beckoning me at an early age, sometimes whispering, sometimes clamoring with the message that I must tell their story. In a faint childhood memory, their spirits envelop me in filtered gray light beneath a tall window inside my grandfather’s apartment. On a nearby dresser, just beyond my reach, I can see their sepia faces inside hand-carved frames.
Even as a little girl I sensed that these grandmothers belonged not only to me but to the world and to those who would claim them for their own dreams and fantasies. Black history books had long recited the outlines of Madam Walker’s classic American rags-to-riches rise from uneducated washerwoman to international entrepreneur and social activist, from daughter of slaves to hair care industry pioneer and philanthropist. Poet Langston Hughes crowned A’Lelia Walker the “joy-goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.” The Negro press fancied Mae–A’Lelia’s adopted daughter and only legal heir–a tan Cinderella. By the time I discovered the Walker’s women’s public mythology, they had already begun to draw me into the world of their private truths.
My grandfather, Marion Rowland Perry, Jr., first met Mae during the summer of 1927 at Villa Lewaro, Madam Walker’s lavish Irvington-on-Hudson, New York mansion. A handsome young attorney and World War I army officer, he was quite proud of a lineage that included college-educated parents. Mae was a recent divorcée and the future Walker heiress, whose thick, waist-length hair had helped sell thousands of tins of Madam C. J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. That weekend, A’Lelia Walker invited Marion to the Cotton Club with her friends–and without Mae–to take the measure of the man she considered a potential son-in-law. She discreetly slipped him a hundred-dollar bill to gauge his comfort with paying large tabs. Apparently he passed her test, for a few weeks late, on August 27, he and Mae drove to Port Chester, New York, in his green Pierce-Arrow to be married by a justice of the peace. The following July, my mother, A’Lelia Mae Perry, was born.
In 1955, when my mother, my father, S. Henry Bundles, and I moved to Indianapolis, I was three years old and Mae had been dead for nearly a decade. For a few weeks while we waited to move into our house, I slept in a bedroom of my grandfather’s apartment surrounded by Mae’s personal treasures. I remember that, in the months afterward, whenever “Pa Pa” opened his front door to greet us, the gluey aroma of roast lamb, Lucky Strikes and old-man musk coated my nostrils. In the entryway, as my mother knelt to adjust my hair bow and smooth my three long braids, my eyes always fixed upon a tall, moss-green Chinese lacquer secretary. Letters, keys, stamps and paper clips tumbled from its tiny gold-trimmed drawers and secret cubbyholes. A serene Ming Dynasty maiden stood guard on the door of its locked upper cabinet. Even before I learned it had belonged to Madam and the first A’Lelia, I was tempted by its mysteries.
Beyond the foyer, the apartment rambled down a long, hushed hall. At one end, Pa Pa’s sleeping alcove opened onto a sitting room crammed with the Walker women’s belongings–A’Lelia’s first editions of Jean Toomer’s Cane and Countee Cullen’s Color, Mae’s gold harp and Madam’s crystal Tiffany vases. At the other end, toward the rear of the apartment, two shadowy bedrooms–one of them Mae’s–and a rarely used dining room led to a bright, white-tiled kitchen where a dented porcelain pot always simmered with soup bones and stock, and where Pa Pa held court at his knife-scarred oak table.
While Pa Pa and my mother talked, I escaped into Mae’s room, drawn time and again by a mauve moiré silk vanity. Even now I can feel a quiet enchantment as I recall grasping cool ivory mah-jongg tiles and miniature enameled King Tut mummy charms. I remember a fluffy fan of ostrich feathers in one drawer and mother-of-pearl opera glasses in another. The more I stirred Mae’s belongings, the more the scent of her Shalimar dusting powder emerged, masking the familiar grandfather mustiness that clung to all the other rooms. Each piece of clothing, each photograph, each bejeweled mirror and monogrammed napkin became a genie’s lamp waiting to be rubbed.
Three blocks from Pa Pa’s apartment, my mother worked as vice president of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, the hair care products firm her great-great-grandmother had founded in 1906. Often when we arrived at the block-long flatiron building in Momma’s 1955 black Mercury, Whitfield, the janitor, was waving at us from beneath the marquee of the Walker Theatre. His official job title notwithstanding, I still think of him as the ambassador of the Walker Building, full of news about the boiler, the freight elevator and whomever had just gone into the Walker Beauty Shop. Opened in 1927, the brick-and-terra-cotta structure housed an elaborately decorated, African-themed theater that offered first-run movies and live jazz. Generations of the city’s African-Americans had danced under the rotating mirrored globe in the upstairs Grand Casino ballroom, met for Sunday afternoon dinner in the Coffee Pot or walked past the third-floor law offices of attorneys Mercer Mance and Rufus Kuykendall on their way to see Dr. Lewis or Dr. Cox.
For me, riding the elevator was always an adventure. Once inside, I fixated on Mary Martin’s shiny, finger-waved tresses and cherry-rouged cheeks as she snapped shut the accordion brass gate with one fluid flick of her wrist, then lifted us four floors toward my mother’s office. Another glissade of Mary’s manicured hands and the door clanked open. The percussive clickety-clack of my mother’s spike heels led me across a cayenne-flecked terrazzo lobby. With each step the sweet fragrance of bergamot and Glossine from the factory downstairs made me with for candy. First we passed Marie Overstreet (the bookkeeper, who would have been a CPA had she been born sixty years later), then Mary Pendegraph (the tall, dignified beauty who speedily processed hundreds of orders each week), then Edith Shanklin (the efficient Addressograph operator who always had a gossip morsel for my mother). In Momma’s office, I must have imagined myself a businesswoman as I played with her hand-cranked adding machine and manual typewriter, sure that my random keystrokes had meaning. No visit was complete without a trip to the second floor, where Myrtis Griffin and Russell White, the ladies of the factory, still mixed some of the Walker ointments by hand in large vats.
At home, there were more reminders of my famous grandmothers. In our living room, I learned to read music on A’Lelia Walker’s Chickering baby grand. We ate Thanksgiving turkey on Madam’s hand-painted Limoges china and ladled Christmas eggnog–made with A’Lelia’s secret recipe–from her sterling silver punch bowl.
Our all-black suburb was filled with doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, musicians, elected officials and attorneys, many with connections to the Walker Company or the Walker Building. Surrounded as I was by so many accomplished people, it would be several years before I fully understood my extraordinary family heritage. Fortunately my mother had taken great care, I now realize, to keep the legacy of the Walker women in manageable perspective so that I could discover its power in my own time, on my own terms. While she had been expected to assume her role as a fourth-generation executive at the Walker Company–and had studied chemistry at Howard University in preparation to do so–she wanted me, her only daughter, to be free to follow my own interests in journalism. But she had also given me the name A’Lelia because she wanted me to value the connection and to respect its origins. Neither of us could have predicted that my love of words and my passion for history would eventually return me to the inheritance I had seemed to be abandoning.
For many years I was more attracted to A’Lelia Walker’s story than to Madam’s. My heart raced each time I saw “our” name on the pages of the dusty books that were stashed in our attic. I was thrilled to discover that our birthdays were so close: hers on June 6, and mine on June 7. But most important, the original A’Lelia intrigued me because she provided a link to the Harlem Renaissance. For a teenager who loved to read–but who had always gone to predominantly white schools where little black literature was assigned–knowing that she had hosted Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen at The Dark Tower, her celebrated Harlem salon, affirmed by dreams to become a writer.
While I was embracing A’Lelia. however, I was growing ambivalent about Madam. A’Lelia represented the fun, flamboyance and glamour of the Roaring Twenties. Madam, on the other hand, was associated with more serious matters: business, philanthropy and the politics of hair. And, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, hair was as much a battleground as Vietnam. Whether it was hippies with ponytails or brothers and sisters with Afros, the scalps of baby boomers had become the symbolic stage on which to express racial pride, political militancy and personal liberation. Because many people believed that Madam Walker’s products were designed primarily to straighten hair, she became an easy target for accusations and complicated emotions in an era when black pride was measured by the length of one’s “natural.” The woman who had been among the pioneers of the modern cosmetics industry–and who had fostered self-esteem, glamour and power among several generations of African American women–temporarily fell out of favor.
During those years, I was hungry for information about the history of black Americans, reading every book and article I could find, earnestly taking the messages to heart. When E. Franklin Frazier, the venerable Howard University sociologist, accused Madam Walker of running advertisements that “tell how the Negro can rid himself of his black or dark complexion, or how he can straighten his hair,” my body flushed with embarrassment. Without my own research, how was I to know that while Madam Walker was alive the Walker Company never sold skin bleaches and the words “hair straightener” never appeared in her ads? It would be years before I would learn that the Walker System was intended to treat the scalp disease that was so rampant in the early 1900s, when many women washed their hair only once a month. “Right here let me correct the erroneous impression held by some that I claim to straighten hair,” she told a reporter in 1918 after she had been called the “de-kink queen” by a white newspaper. “I deplore such an impression because I have always held myself out as a hair culturist. I grow hair.”
Equally persistent was the widely circulated and incorrect belief that Madam Walker had invented the straightening comb. In fact, this metal hair care implement probably had been sold at least as early as the 1870s, when Parisian Marcel Grateau created his famous Marcel Wave, and was advertised in Bloomingdale’s and Sears’s catalogues during the 1880s and 1890s, presumably for the thousands of white women who also had kinky hair. Years later I would learn that the claim probably originated in 1922–three years after Madam Walker’s death–when the Walker Company purchased the rights to a patent from the widow of a man who had manufactured combs for Madam Walker.
Certainly in 1970 most people who recognized Madam Walker’s name associated her with the hot comb. And so did I, even as I sat in the Walker Beauty School watching the cosmetology students transform my chemically straightened flip into an Angela Davis-sized Afro. During college I remained self-conscious about my connection to Madam Walker until one winter afternoon when I discovered W. E. B. Du Bois’s laudatory obituary of her in the August 1919 issue of The Crisis. From deep in the stacks of Harvard’s Widener Library, Du Bois, whom I considered my intellectual hero, had armed me with a strong retort. Madam Walker, he wrote, did not intend “to imitate white folk.” Whereas Frazier had criticized her “conspicuous consumption,” in The Black Bourgeoisie, Du Bois praised her philanthropy and credited her with “revolutionizing the personal habits and appearance of millions of human beings” by educating them about hygiene and grooming. Even to this day, the complex issues surrounding African American women and beauty continue to be debated.
A few days before my mother died in January 1976, I sat in the middle of her hospital bed and talked about the research I was doing on the women in our family. The previous fall, when Phyl Garland, my adviser at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, learned that I was related to Madam Walker, she gently refused to let me even consider another topic for my master’s paper. Of course, I had long ago memorized the legend and its litany: Born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, in 1867, Madam Walker was orphaned at 7, married at 14, a mother at 17, widowed at 20. While working as a washerwoman, she began to go bald. Miraculously, she claimed, the formula for the scalp treatment that was to restore her hair had been revealed to her in a dream. When she died at 51 in 1919, she was one of America’s wealthiest self-made businesswomen. That was the story that everyone–or at least most African American women born before 1950–knew. But now that I was mining new biographical territory, I had begun to discover flaws and occasional lapses of truth mixed in with the victories and accomplishments. There were difficult divorces as well as business successes, legal feuds as well as large charitable contributions. Just when I needed my mother the most to help me make sense of what I was learning, she was too weary from months of chemotherapy to focus on memories.
“What should I do about these things?” I asked, knowing that I would not have her much longer. “Should I include this part? And what about that?”
Mustering just enough energy to leave no doubt about her wishes, she leaned forward, looked into my eyes and said, without hesitation, “Tell the truth, baby. It’s all right to tell the truth.”
Her words were a powerful final gift and a charge that I have tried to honor.
During the two decades after my mother’s death, I worked as a network television producer for ABC News and NBC News, traipsing from coast to coast telling other people’s stories, all the while yearning to resurrect my own family saga. Each year I managed to spend at least part of my weekends, vacations and holidays excavating the details of the Walker women’s lives, learning that for every fabrication others had created, there was a more profound and interesting reality. Occasionally I found myself at the end of cold trails, but more often I was blessed with serendipitous little miracles that revealed a person or document or place with exactly the clue I needed for the next step of my search. Fortunately, Madam Walker, A’Lelia Walker and my mother had known so many people that the usual six degrees of separation were reduced to two or three. One phone call, maybe two, almost always opened the door that I needed. Few people refused to help.
An innovator and visionary, Madam sped through the final decade of her life too busy to reflect and ruminate. Where others of her generation had penned memoirs and autobiographies, she left only the flimsiest clues about her early life. Fortunately for me she understood the power of the press, and actively cultivated relationships with black newspaper reporters who chronicled her activities on a weekly basis. As well, hundreds of her personal letters and business records, faithfully preserved by her secretary, Violet Reynolds–and now archived at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis–provided my original road map to her travels between 1913 and 1919.
The same sense of adventure and anticipation that had led me to the dresser in my grandmother’s room, accompanied me through the libraries, archives, courthouses and historical societies of more than a dozen United States cities between 1975 and 2000. In the St. Louis Public Library, as I scrolled through thousands of feet of microfilm, I discovered three brothers Madam Walker had never mentioned in her official company biography. In Savannah, Georgia, I felt an unspoken healing as I hugged R. Burney Long, whose family still owned the land where Madam Walker was born and where her parents had been slaves. Through the years I followed Madam Walker’s path from Delta, Louisiana, to Vicksburg and St. Louis, from Denver to Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, then to Harlem and Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.
During the summer of 1982–with the last of the Walker friends and employees still alive–I was welcomed into the parlors and living rooms of a fascinating array of men and women in their eighties and nineties, all eager to entrust me with the legacy we shared. In New York, Gerri Major, long known as Jet’s “Society World” columnist, spun stories of A’Lelia’s weekend soirees and afternoon poker parties. Confined to her bed with vertigo, Major was still glamorous in a white satin lounging jacket as she described typesetting the Inter-State Tattler, the tabloid she had edited under the name Geraldyn Dismond during the 1920s and 1930s. Blues singer Alberta Hunter, who was then performing at the Cookery in Greenwich Village, described her visits to Villa Lewaro and told me that A’Lelia Walker had a “beautiful singing voice.” Over a mimosa-filled brunch across the Hudson River in Hoboken, writer and artist Bruce Nugent recalled the crowded October 1927 opening of The Dark Tower, as well as the spaghetti dinners in A’Lelia’s hideaway on Edgecombe Avenue. In Chicago, Marjorie Stewart Joyner, the former principal of the national chain of Walker Beauty Schools, sparkled as she recounted her first meeting with Madam Walker in 1916.
For my grandfather’s ninetieth birthday, I traveled to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the childhood home to which he had returned in the early 1960s. On the second day of my visit, I asked him about a large steamer trunk that I remembered from his Indianapolis apartment. “Try the closet in the front bedroom,” he suggested. And there it was, behind a stack of newspapers and boxes. After I dragged it into the living room, where he was sitting, we unsuccessfully tried every key in the house. Finally we called a locksmith, who in no time was there popping the lock. To my delighted astonishment, the treasures of my childhood–the ostrich fan, the King Tut charms, the opera glasses–all appeared magically before me. For the rest of the day Pa Pa and I explored. In one drawer we found the license for A’Lelia’s second marriage with a spray of baby’s breath still pressed into the folds. Beneath that document was Madam’s last letter to A’Lelia, written just nine days before she died. Folded in another compartment was Mae’s hand-embroidered wedding dress from her 1923 marriage to Dr. Gordon Jackson. Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, Pa Pa–still seated in his straight-backed chair–was ready with an explanation for each item I retrieved. Too excited to eat, too charged to sleep, we continued past midnight. As soon as Pa Pa’s head fell to his chest, he was awake again, mesmerizing me with family stories until the sun peeked through the window blinds.
Six years earlier, my mother had granted me permission to present the Walker women’s lives as I found them. On this not July night, Pa Pa passed the baton of family griot.
Certainly whatever teenage reservations I may have had about Madam Walker are long gone. My original childhood curiosity has remained my most reliable guide. And now that I am the same age as Madam Walker when she experienced her greatest achievements, I fully understand why many consider her an American icon. It continues to be a privilege to tell her story.
Published by Scribner/A Lisa Drew Book