*This publish is part of our online discussion board on Madam C.J. Walker for the centennial anniversary of her demise.
Madam C.J. Walker drives her Ford Mannequin T, (Permission: Madam Walker Family Archives)
As Madam C. J. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, I was introduced to her life story at my household’s dinner table once I was a toddler. The silverware we used each day included her “CJW” monogram. The child grand piano in our front room had belonged to her daughter, and my namesake, A’Lelia Walker.
On my journey to turning into her biographer, my first efforts at in-depth research began in 1975 once I was writing my master’s venture at Columbia University’s Graduate Faculty of Journalism. Regardless of Walker’s iconic place in American, African American, ladies’s, and business historical past, no book-length biography existed. A lot of the secondary sources I discovered repeated the same myths and misinformation about her.
Thankfully, I additionally had access to unpublished, primary-source paperwork and some octogenarians and nonagenarians who had recognized this early twentieth-century hair care business entrepreneur. These assets helped me begin to develop a extra multidimensional portrait that encompassed Walker’s life as a philanthropist, patron of the arts, preservationist, and political activist.
My mom, A’Lelia Mae Perry Bundles, was vice chairman of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Firm through the 1950s and 1960s. From her, I knew the essential storyline: Madam Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana on the same plantation where her mother and father and older siblings had been enslaved. She was orphaned at 7, married at 14, and widowed at 20 with a 2-year-old daughter. A poor washerwoman in St. Louis till she was 38, she developed a line of hair care products that made her a millionaire.
Added to that basic rags-to-riches narrative have been two threads: 1) the admiring, reverential accounts advised by Walker Beauty Faculty graduates and aged Walker Company staff whose lives had been enriched and reworked by their connection and a couple of) the much less flattering critique by those who linked her to hair straightening and European requirements of magnificence.
Along with these themes loomed the entrenched and oft-repeated fantasy that Madam Walker had invented the recent comb. In reality, heated metallic hair styling implements had been used as early as the 1870s when she nonetheless was a toddler in Louisiana. The reality about her position as a pioneer of the fashionable hair care business was more difficult, because it all the time is for many who search nuance and worth context.
As a highschool scholar who was transitioning from a perm to an Afro within the late 1960s, I was ambivalent about Walker as a result of I knew how others seen her. What I came to study is that her preliminary concern was hair loss and hygiene quite than altering her hair texture. At a time when most People lacked indoor plumbing, she developed a shampoo and a medicinal ointment that healed the extreme scalp infections that came from rare washing. Later, she provided her brokers with scorching combs and popularized their use, partially, as a result of she thought they have been an improvement over pullers, a tool that she thought flattened the hair.
On the similar time, she was quite aware of the hair straightening controversy.
“Right here let me right the misguided impression held by some that I claim to straighten the hair,” she informed a reporter in 1919. “I deplore such impression because I have all the time held myself out as a hair culturist. I develop hair.”
After greater than 4 many years of research, I have come to consider that her hair care routine was a way to a more formidable finish. At her first nationwide Madam Walker Beauty Culturists’ convention in 1917, Walker and her delegates despatched a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to help laws to make lynching a federal crime. The subsequent yr, she advised them, “I would like my agents to really feel that their first obligation is to humanity. I shall look forward to finding my brokers taking the lead not only in working a successful enterprise, however in every movement in the curiosity of our coloured citizenship.”
Over time, Walker’s message of empowerment, economic independence, and schooling turned as essential as gross sales of hair care merchandise.
Like so many other traditionally vital Black ladies, the core of her story was obscured for many many years. Just as Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Mary McLeod Bethune, Adella Hunt Logan, Mary Burnett Talbert, and others have been pigeon-holed, marginalized, and buried, so too was Walker.
That each one started to vary as a era of Black ladies earned their Ph.Ds through the 1970s and compelled the academy to acknowledge the ground-breaking worth of their analysis. I have been aided by their scholarship in addition to by the in depth trove of Walker’s private correspondence and Walker Firm data in my Madam Walker Household Archives and within the Walker Collection on the Indiana Historic Society.
These materials have made it attainable to document Walker’s monetary standing and to point out that her personal property combined with the value of her firm exceeded one million dollars at the time of her demise in 1919. Few other ladies or entrepreneurs of colour have extant data that permit this type of confirmation.
Even before I wrote my grasp’s paper, I had begun to see references to Madam Walker, principally in out-of-print books that belonged to my grandfather, Marion Perry.
“No report on business in Harlem can be satisfactory without point out of Madam C. J. Walker,” Claude McKay wrote in Harlem: Negro Metropolis in 1940. Three years later in New World A-Coming, Roi Ottley referred to as Walker “the inventor of a hair-dekinking process” and solidified a story that might be repeated as typical wisdom for a lot of many years. E. Franklin Frazier’s 1957 Black Bourgeoisie dismissed her as “one of the first ‘rich Negroes’ to realize notoriety, [who] made a fortune and set an ordinary for conspicuous consumption that has turn out to be legendary.”
It was W. E. B. Du Bois’s extra charitable view of Madam Walker that allowed me to reassess what others had written. “It isn’t too much to say that [she] revolutionized the private habits and appearance of tens of millions of human beings,” he wrote in his August 1919 Disaster obituary.
Whereas male authors tended to incorporate her as a footnote or a curiosity, the ladies who truly had recognized her offered a unique lens. She was a “demonstration of what a black lady who has imaginative and prescient and ambition can really do,” Ida B. Wells wrote in Crusade for Justice. “To see her phenomenal rise made me take delight anew in Negro womanhood.”
“Her life was an unusual one,” Mary McLeod Bethune wrote to A’Lelia Walker in June 1919 after Walker’s demise. “She was the clearest demonstration, I do know, of Negro lady’s means recorded in history.”
I will admit that I used to be thrilled once I read Paula Giddings’s account of Madam Walker in her 1984 e-book, When and The place I Enter: The Impression of Black Ladies on Race and Sex in America, as a result of she had taken the time to do the analysis and to offer useful historic context.
In writing about Madam Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia Walker, I have encountered most of the similar challenges of misinformation and fantasy. But simply as with Madam Walker, I had the primary source paperwork that contradicted the second-hand accounts and hypothesis. A lot overshadowed by her pioneering mom, A’Lelia Walker has been caricatured and diminished.
A’Lelia Walker, (Madam Walker Family Archives)
For a very long time, I was extra drawn to her because she had recognized the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She was a patron of the arts whose events lent a glamorous, glitzy aura to the post-World Conflict I social scene above 110th Road. “It was a interval when local and visiting royalty have been under no circumstances uncommon in Harlem,” Langston Hughes wrote. “And when the events of A’Lelia Walker, the Negro heiress, have been crammed with friends whose names would flip any Nordic social climber envious.”
Hughes referred to as her “the enjoyment goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.” Her dying, he wrote, “really was the top of the homosexual occasions of the New Negro era in Harlem.”
After her funeral in August 1931, my grandmother, Mae Walker Perry, moved A’Lelia Walker’s belongings to Indianapolis. That’s the place I found them in a dresser drawer in 1955. Once I wrote a report concerning the Harlem Renaissance in high school in 1970, I had the unique invitation from A’Lelia Walker’s Dark Tower cultural salon and copies of Jean Toomer’s Cane and Countee Cullen’s Colour for present and inform.
But I quickly discovered that many writers had a special interpretation of her than her pal Langston Hughes.
Roi Ottley sarcastically had described her as “the Mahogany Millionairess” who “spent cash recklessly” and wore “outlandish clothes.” To today, that perception has defined her and been repeated by scholars and historians, together with many whose work I respect and admire.
David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue has shaped two generations of scholars, who’ve repeated and rehashed his description of A’Lelia Walker as dilettante.“Her intellectual powers have been slight,” he wrote. “After seven minutes, conversation went precipitously downhill.” I’m not positive of the unique source for that declare, however not one of the associates I interviewed through the early 1980s ever instructed that she was intellectually challenged. On the contrary, they talked of having fun with her company and being in her presence.
Writer Steven Watson claimed in his 1995 e-book, Harlem Renaissance that she “not often learn books.” More just lately, Saidiya Hartman repeated this declare in Wayward Lives, Lovely Experiments (“It was rumored that she didn’t read books.”), but this contradicts my research and the written document. I personal lots of her books–including an autographed copy of Hughes’s Weary Blues–and letters where she thanks pals for books and tells them how a lot she loves to learn.
There are other myths about A’Lelia Walker’s philanthropy and her help of Harlem Renaissance writers, artists, and actors. Just as I hope my books about Madam Walker have helped to create a extra complete, multi-dimensional portrait, I hope my forthcoming ebook The Pleasure Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance can do the identical for A’Lelia Walker.
What we’re capable of write now about each Madam Walker and A’Lelia Walker is sort of totally different from what students have been capable of write greater than 40 years ago once I started my analysis. We are the beneficiaries of unimaginable scholarship–including cabinets and cabinets of books, monographs, and dissertations–in addition to a fierce advocacy and respect for our stories.
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