Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Two writers restore history

African-American women found inspiration in ancestors' lives

By Shauna Scott Rhone,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A'Lelia Bundles and Lalita Tademy and are time travelers. Both African-American women left high-paying jobs as executives in television and technology to become their ancestors' scribes. In advance of appearances in Cincinnati, the two best-selling authors told the Enquirer the stories behind the stories. An inescapable calling to the past. An untold piece of American history. And what surprised, troubled and pleased them about writing On Her Own Ground and Cane River.

A'Lelia Bundles
        To millions of Americans, she was the first, self-made female millionaire, known for traveling the country selling hair products to make women beautiful. To A'Lelia Bundles, Madam C.J. Walker was “great-great grandmother.”

        “I guess I always knew who she was,” says Ms. Bundles, author of On Her Own Ground — The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker (Washington Square Press; $15).

        Ms. Bundles will tell the story again to an audience at the Cincinnati Art Museum for a benefit April 20 hosted by Girl Friends Inc. She talked to the Enquirer by phone from Washington, D.C.

        “I remember going to my mother's office in the Walker building when I was a little girl.” The business was handed down daughter-to-daughter until it was sold in 1986.

        Surrounded by portraits, memorabilia and folk tales, Ms. Bundles grew up knowing more about the legend than the woman.

        Madam C.J. Walker lived a life worth telling. Born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana in 1867, she was the daughter of former slaves, orphaned at the age of 7, married at 14 and widowed at 20 to raise her young daughter alone. In spite of these setbacks, she went on, in 1910, to found the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co. in Indianapolis. The two main products sold were those she created: a shampoo and sulfur-based ointment she made to help stop her own hair from thinning.

        She traveled throughout America, the Caribbean and Central America, opening training centers to teach black women how to sell her products and become financially independent. By 1917, the year before cosmetics legend Mary Kay Ash was born, Madam Walker was holding national conventions for her Walker sales agents.

        She urged her agents to set aside a portion of their income to “give back” to local communities. She encouraged her agents to be more politically active and philanthropic and to lead by example.

Madam Walker
Madam Walker
        Fortunately, Madam Walker wrote a narrative describing her life and climb to success. When author Alex Haley wanted to write Madam Walker's biography in the early 1980s, Ms. Bundles agreed to be a researcher for the project. Mr. Haley died in 1992 without completing a Walker manuscript, so Ms. Bundles decided to write the book about her famous great-great grandmother.

        With unprecedented access to Madam Walker's personal, family and business files, Ms. Bundles only had to fill in the event gaps between thousands of pages of documents.

        “I was so fortunate to already have the material,” says Ms. Bundles. “It was as if it all prepared me to tell the story. Truth is, the narrative she left was basically what the book told. Her secretary had saved all the notes from Madam Walker's meetings with her attorney,” which led to a road map of her financial paths.

        “Her business papers told me where she was. If she went to Chicago, I went to Chicago and looked at black newspapers' archives,” where she found ads and society notices of Madam Walker's appearances.

        The black press proved invaluable for Ms. Bundles' research. “Thank goodness for them,” she says. “A lot of the information was not written in books, so I used archives from the Indianapolis Freeman, New York Age, Chicago Defender, Baltimore Afro-American. They really chronicled the days of African-Americans, told you who was sick or out of town. Her visits were mentioned a lot.”

   A'Lelia Bundles
    What: Lecture, slides and book signing with A'Lelia Bundles, author of On Her Own Ground — The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.
   When: 8 p.m. April 20.
   Where: Cincinnati Art Museum, hosted by Girl Friends, Inc., Cincinnati Chapter.
   How much: $30, proceeds benefit Cincinnati Summerbridge Program.
   More info: 541-5022.

   Lalita Tademy
Reading and book signing with Lalita Tademy, author of Cane River.
   When: 7 p.m. Thursday
   Where: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Norwood.
   How much: free.
   More info: 396-8960.

        Ms. Bundles had gathered enough information in 1991 to publish a young adult version, Madam C.J. Walker: Entrepreneur. (Chelsea House; $21.95), part of the Black Americans of Achievement series. She also led the successful campaign to have Madam Walker immortalized in the 1998 U.S. Postal Service's Black Heritage stamp series.

        She continued to research, compile and outline the book until 1999, when she left her full-time job as deputy bureau chief for ABC News in Washington (she continues with ABC as executive director of talent development).

        “Because I'm the writer in the family,” says Ms. Bundles, “I'm the one who remembers stories told by my mom's childhood friends. I always wanted to be a writer, and my parents did not push us to follow in the family business,” even though her father was also in the hair care business as president of competitor Summit Laboratories.

        Was there anything she found out about Madame Walker that surprised her? “I was surprised that she was as visionary as she was,” says Ms. Bundles. “I knew she started a business, but I didn't realize she was so far ahead of her time and was so political. In 1917, she was already advocating philanthropy. I was surprised how politically militant she was. She was challenging the president (Woodrow Wilson) to support anti-lynching legislation and standing next to (civil rights activists) Monroe Trotter, W.E.B. DuBois and A. Philip Randolph.

        She didn't have to agree with everything they said. She'd take their sides on certain issues, found what she liked about a part of their philosophies and supported it.”

        Ms. Bundles wants readers of the book to enjoy learning about an important woman in American history.

        “I hope they'll be inspired, and a piece of American history will be restored. My great-great-grandmother was a multi-dimensional woman who became one of the most successful people in the country. She also used her wealth and influence as a philanthropist to make the country a better place.”

        When Madam Walker died at the age of 51 in 1919, her estimated personal wealth was $600,000-$700,000, which Ms. Bundles says is $6-7 million in today's dollars. The sales figures from her company during the last year of her life topped $500,000.

        Ms. Bundles wants to dispel false tales of how Madam Walker accumulated her fortune. First, she did not invent the straightening or hot comb. They were already on the market. She also did not sell hair relaxers. Ms. Bundles credits another company in her book: “The Original Ozonized Ox Marrow Company, proclaiming its product since the 1860s as "the first preparation ever sold for straightening kinky hair ...”'

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