Untangling Madam C.J. Walker’s Story
*This post is part of our online forum on Madam C.J. Walker for the centennial anniversary of her death.
As Madam C. J. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, I was introduced to her life story at my family’s dinner table when I was a toddler. The silverware we used every day included her “CJW” monogram. The baby grand piano in our living room had belonged to her daughter, and my namesake, A’Lelia Walker.
On my journey to becoming her biographer, my first efforts at in-depth research began in 1975 when I was writing my master’s project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Despite Walker’s iconic place in American, African American, women’s, and business history, no book-length biography existed. Most of the secondary sources I found repeated the same myths and misinformation about her.
Fortunately, I also had access to unpublished, primary-source documents and a few octogenarians and nonagenarians who had known this early twentieth-century hair care industry entrepreneur. These resources helped me begin to develop a more multidimensional portrait that encompassed Walker’s life as a philanthropist, patron of the arts, preservationist, and political activist.
My mother, A’Lelia Mae Perry Bundles, was vice president of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company during the 1950s and 1960s. From her, I knew the basic storyline: Madam Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana on the same plantation where her parents 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 until she was 38, she developed a line of hair care products that made her a millionaire.
Added to that classic rags-to-riches narrative were two threads: 1) the admiring, reverential accounts told by Walker Beauty School graduates and elderly Walker Company employees whose lives had been enriched and transformed by their connection and 2) the less flattering critique by those who linked her to hair straightening and European standards of beauty.
Along with those themes loomed the entrenched and oft-repeated myth that Madam Walker had invented the hot comb. In fact, heated metal hair styling implements had been used as early as the 1870s when she still was a child in Louisiana. The truth about her role as a pioneer of the modern hair care industry was more complicated, as it always is for those who seek nuance and value context.
As a high school student who was transitioning from a perm to an Afro in the late 1960s, I was ambivalent about Walker because I knew how others viewed her. What I came to learn is that her initial concern was hair loss and hygiene rather than altering her hair texture. At a time when most Americans lacked indoor plumbing, she developed a shampoo and a medicinal ointment that healed the severe scalp infections that came from infrequent washing. Later, she supplied her agents with hot combs and popularized their use, in part, because she thought they were an improvement over pullers, a device that she thought flattened the hair.
At the same time, she was quite aware of the hair straightening controversy.
“Right here let me correct the erroneous impression held by some that I claim to straighten the hair,” she told a reporter in 1919. “I deplore such impression because I have always held myself out as a hair culturist. I grow hair.”1
After more than four decades of research, I have come to believe that her hair care regimen was a means to a more ambitious end. At her first national Madam Walker Beauty Culturists’ convention in 1917, Walker and her delegates sent a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime. The next year, she told them, “I want my agents to feel that their first duty is to humanity. I shall expect to find my agents taking the lead not only in operating a successful business, but in every movement in the interest of our colored citizenship.”2
Over time, Walker’s message of empowerment, economic independence, and education became as important as sales of hair care products.
Like so many other historically significant Black women, the core of her story was obscured for many decades. 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 all began to change as a generation of Black women earned their Ph.Ds during the 1970s and forced the academy to acknowledge the ground-breaking value of their research. I have been aided by their scholarship as well as by the extensive trove of Walker’s personal correspondence and Walker Company records in my Madam Walker Family Archives and in the Walker Collection at the Indiana Historical Society.
These materials have made it possible to document Walker’s financial status and to show that her personal estate combined with the value of her company exceeded a million dollars at the time of her death in 1919. Few other women or entrepreneurs of color have extant records that allow this kind of confirmation.
Even before I wrote my master’s paper, I had begun to see references to Madam Walker, mostly in out-of-print books that belonged to my grandfather, Marion Perry.
“No report on business in Harlem would be adequate without mention of Madam C. J. Walker,” Claude McKay wrote in Harlem: Negro Metropolis in 1940. Three years later in New World A-Coming, Roi Ottley called Walker “the inventor of a hair-dekinking process” and solidified a narrative that would be repeated as conventional wisdom for many decades. E. Franklin Frazier’s 1957 Black Bourgeoisie dismissed her as “one of the first ‘rich Negroes’ to gain notoriety, [who] made a fortune and set a standard for conspicuous consumption that has become legendary.”
It was W. E. B. Du Bois’s more charitable view of Madam Walker that allowed me to reassess what others had written. “It is not too much to say that [she] revolutionized the personal habits and appearance of millions of human beings,” he wrote in his August 1919 Crisis obituary.
While male authors tended to include her as a footnote or a curiosity, the women who actually had known her provided a different lens. She was a “demonstration of what a black woman who has vision and ambition can really do,” Ida B. Wells wrote in Crusade for Justice. “To see her phenomenal rise made me take pride anew in Negro womanhood.”
“Her life was an unusual one,” Mary McLeod Bethune wrote to A’Lelia Walker in June 1919 after Walker’s death. “She was the clearest demonstration, I know, of Negro woman’s ability recorded in history.”3
I will admit that I was thrilled when I read Paula Giddings’s account of Madam Walker in her 1984 book, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, because she had taken the time to do the research and to provide helpful historical context.
In writing about Madam Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia Walker, I have encountered many of the same challenges of misinformation and myth. But just as with Madam Walker, I had the primary source documents that contradicted the second-hand accounts and speculation. Much overshadowed by her pioneering mother, A’Lelia Walker has been caricatured and diminished.
For a very long time, I was more drawn to her because she had known the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She was a patron of the arts whose parties lent a glamorous, glitzy aura to the post-World War I social scene above 110th Street. “It was a period when local and visiting royalty were not at all uncommon in Harlem,” Langston Hughes wrote. “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.”4
Hughes called her “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.” Her death, he wrote, “really was the end of the gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem.”5
After her funeral in August 1931, my grandmother, Mae Walker Perry, moved A’Lelia Walker’s belongings to Indianapolis. That’s where I found them in a dresser drawer in 1955. When I wrote a report about the Harlem Renaissance in high school in 1970, I had the original invitation from A’Lelia Walker’s Dark Tower cultural salon and copies of Jean Toomer’s Cane and Countee Cullen’s Color for show and tell.
But I soon learned that many writers had a different interpretation of her than her friend Langston Hughes.
Roi Ottley sarcastically had described her as “the Mahogany Millionairess” who “spent money recklessly” and wore “outlandish clothes.”6 To this day, that perception has defined her and been repeated by scholars and historians, including many whose work I respect and admire.
David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue has shaped two generations of scholars, who have repeated and rehashed his description of A’Lelia Walker as dilettante.“Her intellectual powers were slight,” he wrote. “After seven minutes, conversation went precipitously downhill.” I am not sure of the original source for that claim, but not one of the friends I interviewed during the early 1980s ever suggested that she was intellectually challenged. To the contrary, they talked of enjoying her company and being in her presence.
Author Steven Watson claimed in his 1995 book, Harlem Renaissance that she “rarely read books.” More recently, Saidiya Hartman repeated this claim in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (“It was rumored that she didn’t read books.”), but this contradicts my research and the written record. I own many of her books–including an autographed copy of Hughes’s Weary Blues–and letters where she thanks friends for books and tells them how much she loves to read.
There are other myths about A’Lelia Walker’s philanthropy and her support of Harlem Renaissance writers, artists, and actors. Just as I hope my books about Madam Walker have helped to create a more complete, multi-dimensional portrait, I hope my forthcoming book The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance can do the same for A’Lelia Walker.
What we’re able to write now about both Madam Walker and A’Lelia Walker is quite different from what scholars were able to write more than 40 years ago when I began my research. We are the beneficiaries of incredible scholarship–including shelves and shelves of books, monographs, and dissertations–as well as a fierce advocacy and respect for our stories.
- “The World Famous Hair Culturist Puts New Toilet Article on the Market,” Dallas Express, March 29, 1919. ↩
- “Mme. C. J. Walker Holds Second Annual Convention,” Chicago Defender, August 10, 1918, 12. ↩
- Mary McLeod Bethune to Lelia Walker, June 13, 1919 (Letter in Madam Walker Family Archives) ↩
- Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (New York: Hill and Wang, 1940), 227. ↩
- Ibid, 247. ↩
- Roi Ottley, New World A-Comin’ (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943), 173. ↩
Comments on “Untangling Madam C.J. Walker’s Story”
Wonderful piece. Thank you for continuing to share the truth of your families legacy.
Your great- great grandmother’s photo in a framed US Postal Service poster presides over our dining room for years as a reminder of how we must strive , struggle ,and raise up our communities.Thank you for sharing your insights.
A’Lelia Bundles also authored an illustrated book for young readers titled “All About Madam C.J. Walker.” It is great for kids grades four through eight, but adults enjoy it as well.
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