WHY YOU WANT TO LISTEN:
The incredible story of Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) is brought to life by her great-great granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, author of the biography Self Made (previously published as On Her Own Ground). Born in Louisiana after the Civil War, orphaned at seven, married at 14, widowed at 20, Walker went on to become an influential businesswoman, activist, philanthropist, and the first self-made woman millionaire. She built a haircare empire that depended upon women sales reps — tens of thousands earning financial independence for the first time — whom she later organized to become a force for social change.
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Our interview with A’Lelia Bundles, the great-great granddaughter and biographer of Madam C.J. Walker, who tells us the true story of Madam C.J. Walker.
Well, I don’t know if I’m just clueless, but I had never heard of Madam CJ Walker. I keep thinking about the New York Times during that Forgotten Women series, where they’re finally running obituaries of women who absolutely deserved a legacy to be put in print, and so I’m discovering all of these women I didn’t know about, and Madam CJ Walker, who if we had an entrepreneur hall of fame, would be in the front hall. I didn’t know about her. How did that happen?
Well, you know, it’s true. That’s part of the reason I write the books that I write is because she wasn’t well known enough, and the New York Times actually did have an obit of her when she died in May of 1919. There was even a big article about her in 1918 in the New York Times Magazine, because she was building her mansion in Irvington, but the headline on the obit said, ‘Wealthiest Negress’.
I love it.
So, I almost with they hadn’t written it.
Nancy: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).
A’Lelia: So, that I could have them write a new one. I’m still thinking about writing them and saying you could fix this up a little bit.
Nancy: That’s a great idea.
A’Lelia: But you know, her story, like so many stories of women, just weren’t written about. Women were not considered important enough to write about, and thank goodness you and I are living in an era when we can correct that.
Nancy: Absolutely. Well, can you talk about her childhood? Because she just kind of came out of this childhood which she says really, she began at an early age fending for herself, and you can just feel that if it’s not DNA, certainly the nurture that went on, or the lack of nurture just gave her an ambition from the get-go.
A’Lelia: You know, there’s an amazing amount of resilience that’s part of this story, but there is, I think, a combination of nature and nurture here. Her family, clearly hardworking people, but that parish in Louisiana where she was born, really was a place where African-Americans were 90% of the population during slavery, because it was a big cotton growing area, but that translated into political power after the Civil War.
So, her family minister, humble as their circumstances may have been, was elected a state senator. So, that meant that there was some sense of political power, some sense of taking care of oneself, and even though she was orphaned at a very early age, and that obviously had a big impact on her, she had older brothers who were involved in politics. They were part of an early migration from Louisiana going north as part of what was called the Exodusters Movement, and that was just people who decided they were not going to sharecrop anymore, and they just left, and really thinking they were going to Kansas.
But she saw this in her family minister. She saw it in her brothers, and when she got to St. Louis in 1888, a widowed 20 year old with a daughter, she was embraced by the women of the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, and those women mentored her. She was an illiterate washer women. Those women were more educated, and so she got this combination of seeing early on being orphaned and having to be resilient, having to fend for herself, but having a sense, I think, of some political power, though she may not have been entirely conscious of that as a child, but then being embraced by these women of the church who began to give her a vision of herself as something other than an illiterate washer woman.
Nancy: Wow. So, the parish provided an immediate support group.
A’Lelia: Exactly. So, even though … I mean, losing your parents at seven, that’s extremely difficult, obviously.
Nancy: And married at 14, right? She was married.
A’Lelia: Right. She said, I got married at 14 to get a home of my own, because she had had to move in with the older sister, and her brother in law, she always described in her sort of brief biography, as cruel. She didn’t say exactly what that meant, but you have to … you can imagine what kind of cruelty it was, whether it was physical or mental or sexual, we don’t know, but whatever it was, it was enough to make her say that she needed to get away.
Nancy: So, now she’s on her own. She is … what, it’s around the mid-1890’s … Something happens on the top of her head.
A’Lelia: Yes, you know, necessity is the mother of invention.
Nancy: It really is, particularly, I think, when it comes to women.
A’Lelia: Absolutely, and women and beauty, and this is a period of time, 90% of African-Americans lived in the South during the late 19th century, early 20th century. Most Americans didn’t have indoor plumbing. So, bathing was something that wasn’t happening on a regular basis for most people. You had to go outside and pump the water, and heat the water on the wood stove, and do all of that. Baths were kind of, in a number two tin tub, maybe once a week, and this also presented great problems for washing one’s hair, and people had all kinds of old wives’ tales about hygiene and hair and reasons why people didn’t do this, but as a result, a lot of women washed their hair maybe once a month, sometimes not at all during the winter, kept it covered up. She was one of those women, and so she had really horrible dandruff and scalp infections that were causing her to go bald. So, she needed a solution.
Nancy: Don’t you love it? And so she goes, okay, I need to get my hair back. I need to come up with a solution, and the way she tells it in her origin story, which I love, by the way, because origin stories are so important when people are creating businesses. How did you come up with this idea? She says, she prayed to the Lord.
A’Lelia: Absolutely, and I think that like her contemporaries, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, and many of the beauty moguls, everybody has a bit of myth-making in their origin story.
Nancy: You bet, or probably they wouldn’t have made it.
A’Lelia: Exactly. They created these stories. They had secret formulas, when often the formulas were extremely basic, but they just knew how to market them well, and they knew how to mix things up. But yeah, she said, I was so ashamed of my frightful appearance, that I prayed to the Lord for a solution, and one night in a dream, a big African man appeared and told me what to mix up for my formula. Some of the ingredients came from Africa. I sent for them. I mixed them together. I applied them to my scalp, and my hair began to grow back faster than it had ever fallen out.
Now, I think that’s part of the truth. Even Einstein said that part of the Theory of Relativity came to him in a dream. So, I don’t discount this, but there are some other factors that are going on. Her brothers were barbers in St. Louis when she arrived. Black men dominated the barbering trade in the late 19th century. They had been servants and barbers during slavery, and they still were the people who cared for other people.
Ultimately, they lost control of that business, but at the time, her brothers were barbers. So, I think she learned something from them. For a time, she was a sales agent for a woman named Annie Malone in St. Louis. For about a year or so she sold Malone’s products, and they became great fierce competitors. There also were other products on the market that really were this very basic formula. Wash your hair more often, and then an ointment that contained sulfur.
So, Cuticura was very similar. It had been around since, I think, the 1870s, and then the other piece of it is that when she moved to Denver in 1905, she was a cook for a man named Schultz who owned the largest pharmacy west of the Mississippi, and I think he helped her come up with her own formula.
So, there’s a whole combination of things. Her own trial and error, brothers who were barbers, selling someone else’s products for awhile, the formula had been around a long time, and also being a cook for a pharmacy. So, she had a little bit of everything mixed in. Ultimately, she was a great marketer and a great motivator.
Nancy: A great marketer, and that leads to her name change, right? I mean, her name was Sarah, and suddenly she becomes Madam Walker, and the name of her product is Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. Such a good name.
A’Lelia: Right? And you’re right, it’s branding. She was like a natural at branding.
Nancy: Branding, and she put her picture on the product, right?
A’Lelia: Exactly. So, yeah, she was born Sarah Breedlove, and her first husband was McWilliams, second husband was Davis, but the third husband who had sold newspaper advertising in St. Louis, moved to Denver with her. His name was Charles Joseph Walker. So, her very first ad that I can find in a Denver newspaper. The first one says Mrs. C.J. Walker, and then about a month later, she’s Madam C.J. Walker, and that is a bit of an affectation, but a nod to Paris, which was in the center of fashion and beauty and cosmetics.
So, she was taking on this persona of Madam C.J. Walker. The idea of putting her image on her own product was really pretty revolutionary, because the standards of beauty were European, and Gibson Girls were the coin of the realm for beauty at the time, but to put her own image on her products was a real statement.
Nancy: Absolutely, and it was European and it was white, because the politics of hair, which you write about so wonderfully in the book, that even a lot of the black community was against Madam Walker, because they interpreted her wonderful hair products as straightening black women’s hair, and thus trying to imitate white women, and that is not what Madam Walker was trying to do.
A’Lelia: Right. I mean, I think that there’s … I think that you can never discount the fact that sort of the tyranny of another standard of beauty that no one can attain, and I often think when I look at pictures of the Gibson Girls that very few white women could actually pull that off themselves. So, we’re always sort of … the mountain of beauty that no one can actually scale.
Nancy: Well, that is common denominator among all women.
A’Lelia: Among all women.
A’Lelia: Right. And I think it was certainly within the black community has been the, what is more beautiful? And lighter skin, straighter hair, is something that we still grapple with, and you can see it in the music videos. But in Madam Walker’s case, I think her real issue was not about straight hair initially, it was about having hair. She was going bald, and she knew that many other women were experiencing the same problems. So, it was just … you think in a time before penicillin, before aspirin was widely available, that this sort of basic hygiene and healthcare had a long way to go, and so just the idea of getting women to wash their hair more often, changing their mindsets about that, and then once their scalps were clean, applying an ointment that had sulfur, which is a centuries old remedy for healing skin infections.
So, that was really what she was focused on. So, Wonderful Hair Grower was the remedy.
Nancy: And so here she’s now … she had a problem. She’s come up with a solution. She happened to meet the right guy who could bring it into the lab and change the formula just a bit so that she could make it her own. Then she starts going out there to market the product, and this is where among her genius … I mean, she’s already done the branding. She’s given herself a name. She’s put her face on the product. All this, by the way, picture this. This is a century ago. She then goes out and she is the best sales woman … one of the best sales women we’ll ever read about. Could you talk a little bit about her … I mean, she didn’t call it distribution, I don’t think, but how she would invade a town. Town after town. I mean, she was a road warrior going out to evangelize this product.
A’Lelia: Truly tireless, on the road most of the year, and this is pre-airplanes.
A’Lelia: So, that was a lot of trains, and she’d have to imagine that she was dealing with Jim Crow laws where the travel was not … the travel accommodations were often not very comfortable, but when the black pullman porters would see her coming, they would make sure that they had as comfortable accommodations as possible, but on the road most of the year going from city to city, and she started out … When she started out from Denver, because she’d moved to Colorado.
A’Lelia: She had a widowed sister in law and nieces there, and that was a good place for her to go to leave St. Louis, but there weren’t very many black people in Colorado then, just like now, and so that meant her market was going to be pretty limited. So, she and her new husband, Charles Joseph Walker, started traveling throughout Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas, making their way towards the East Coast, and every town she would go to, she would speak in the church or the Mason’s hall, or sometimes she’d speak in the Baptist Church and the Methodist Church, but she was demonstrating her products, and over time she had built up an army of sales agents.
Women who were now either her sales agent just selling the products, or women who were what she called ‘beauty culturists’ who’s been trained to use her products and to use them on other women.
Nancy: Which was also a very current way now in social media. What she got was proselytizers, evangelists. These were women who had used her product, would come when she came into town. She was also holding classes, right, to train these agents who then, when she left that particular town, she had an army behind her to go out and sell her stuff.
A’Lelia: Yeah, she had a real good eye for picking influencers. She would find a woman in the church who had the most personality, and who was a natural leader, and that was the person that she was drawn to. And over time, I mean, initially it was really she was talking about hair, but as she became more aware, sort of more politically aware and socially aware, she incorporated a slide presentation. It was called Stereopticon, but it would be like a PowerPoint presentation now, and it wasn’t just pictures of hair. She also included black educational institutions, and black businesses, and famous black people to …
So, she became the lecture series. She would be at the 92 Street Y. She brought people come to hear not just about hair, but to have the community hear about what she was doing, and be here as sort of an uplifting conversation, a motivational conversation.
Nancy: And again, I can’t emphasize this enough, she was doing this by herself. I mean, these ideas … she did have a guy back in the office, which I’d like to talk about briefly, but she didn’t have a Chief Marketing Officer. She didn’t have all these consulting groups. She was creating. I mean, this is like a playbook for anybody who wants to start a business, and I really submit that if you read this whole book, and you read it carefully, you’ve gone to B school, because she’s so savvy, so, I mean, full of common sense, and then this determination. I mean, she will never take ‘no’ for an answer.
You’ve got a chapter in the book called ‘I Promoted Myself.’
A’Lelia: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nancy: And that ability, whether we call it publicity, we call it hype, is pretty integral to her story, don’t you think?
A’Lelia: Yeah, because she said, she was a washer woman, and nobody else was going to push her forward, but she had to make that decision to do that on herself, but I think she had done that all her life. It was the decision to get married at 14, even thought that was not the most wonderful circumstance, but it was something that got her out of-
Nancy: That’s right.
A’Lelia: … a bad situation. The decision to leave the Louisiana, Mississippi, Vicksburg delta area at 20 to move to St. Louis, because there was really nobody saying to her, you’ve got to get up and move. She had to take that initiative herself. It was joining the choir in her church, even though she sometimes probably didn’t have the nicest clothes to wear, to send her daughter to school. There were all these things that she knew she had to do to improve her circumstances, and ‘I Promoted Myself’ is certainly a watch word for her.
But, you know, when you talk about a playbook, that it’s … the things that we have today in Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, places where we can essentially promote a business for free. You can get started in that way. She did all of those things. Business cards, when she moved to Denver, she had a dollar. She said, I had a $1.50, and she bought business cards. She took out an ad in the newspaper. She advertised in … There was a wonderful amazing national network of black newspapers during that period of time, and she advertised in them, especially the nationally distributed ones, and she took out a big ad when she moved to Indianapolis in 1910 in the Indianapolis Freemen.
It was like a third of a page, top to bottom, with testimonials, before and after pictures. So, it was kind of a Jenny Craig idea, and then-
Nancy: Love it.
A’Lelia: … testimonials from women, and two things that stand out for me in these ads. One, she included letters from women who had used her product, and one woman said, before I started using Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, my hair was an eighth of an inch long, and now my hair is down my back, and I’ve been able to throw my wig away. But it wasn’t only about hair, it was always also about women’s economic empowerment, and another woman’s letter was included, and she said, you have made it possible for a colored woman to make more money in a day selling your products, than she could in a month working in somebody’s kitchen.
So, she used these ads to bring in women to buy her products, but also to tell them that they could be economically and financially free.
Nancy: She was making a movement.
Nancy: I really believe that she created a product. She then had a product line, and had she lived, she would have blown out the cosmetic line they were beginning, but she realized that her … every woman’s scalp that she touched that would then give an endorsement was a woman who would then to talk to her friends. They would talk to their friends, and that word of mouth would create a movement, not only to buy her products, but as you said, to make them financially independent, and what could be more significant, I mean, than money? I mean, that’s still important to women, and something we’re still working on.
A’Lelia: Yeah, I mean, she appealed to them on sort of the most basic self esteem, beauty, taking care of yourself, self care, nurturing. There’s nothing more nurturing than having somebody wash your hair. We still feel that now.
Nancy: You bet.
A’Lelia: And I think there is, in some ways, the hair care products became a means to an end. She had observed even when she was still the washer woman in St. Louis in her church, the club women. The black women who were organized around suffrage, around daycare centers, around orphan’s homes, other kinds of things. She saw what those women were doing in the community. What was called the National Association of Colored Women had their 1904 convention in her church, because they were there for the World’s Fair, and she saw the power of women organized.
In 1917, after she had been in business for a little more than a decade, she began to organize her agents into a national organization. She wanted them to be politically aware. She wanted them to be involved, and so she held her first convention of her sales agents in August of 1917.
Nancy: Oh, I wish I could have been there.
A’Lelia: You know, it has to have been one of the first conventions of women entrepreneurs.
A’Lelia: You know, I’ve tried to do the research. I can’t say it was the first. I mean, I don’t think that really matters, but the point is, in 1917 she had this convention, and like Mary Kay, she gave prizes to the women who’d sold the most products, but she also gave prizes to the women who had contributed the most to charity….
Nancy: And she was also throughout her career, and certainly at that convention, really making a connecting between women getting money and then using that money and their numbers collectively, to create social change.
A’Lelia: Definitely. That was the idea. You came together. Yes, you were selling these products, but now you had sold these products. Now you were a leader in your community, because women were coming to you. Now you had more money to spend. You could buy a house. You could contribute to charity, and then what do you do with that? And she said, I want you as Walker agents to show the world that we care, not just about ourselves, but about others. She wanted them to be politically aware. At the end of the convention, they sent a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime. You know, it was Black Lives Matter 1.0.
Nancy: Absolutely, and it wasn’t something … I mean, some corporations, alas, add on a good cause veneer, but it’s not really in their bones. For Madam Walker, it truly was, and we should talk about the anti-lynching she got involved in, because as I read the book, I kept thinking, well the suffragette movement is happening. The vote, the women’s amendment is about to happen in 1919, and that really wasn’t on her radar as much as the black population, what was happening to them. I mean, the number of lynchings that were happening at that time, and she got involved, and went into protests, gave money. That was her movement at that point, right?
A’Lelia: Yeah, and I have tried to find whether she … how much she may have been involved with the suffrage movement, and I’m sure she wasn’t opposed to it, but I think that this was the priority issue for her at that moment, and certainly other women in the National Association of Color Women were involved in suffrage. Ida B. Wells, who was a friend of hers, was involved, but she had really become focused on anti-lynching and the rights of black soldiers during World War I.
When I try to unpack that, what that affinity was, where she had grown up in Delta, Louisiana, there had been a lot of lynchings right after the Civil War, during Reconstruction. The election of 1876 was a horrifically violent election as Reconstruction was ending, and so I have to think that she had witnessed some of that, or certainly knew stories about lynching during that period of time. So, she was very devoted to that, but also her involvement as a member of the National Association of Colored People. When she moved to New York, she became a member of the New York chapter’s executive committee.
A’Lelia: They hosted a … planned the silent protest parade after the East St. Louis riots. So, she saw an opportunity to be a real leader in that movement.
Nancy: And another way that she was a leader is when she would go to the big trade conferences that were important to her industry or the conferences about, yeah, Black Lives Matter 1.0, and they weren’t so keen on her talking, giving a talk at those conventions, and I loved watching her go in there. As much I like seeing her convene the women together, when she would go into the boys’ conferences and try to get a seat at the table.
A’Lelia: Yeah, well, and you know, that is the ‘I Promoted Myself’ is where this comes from. She was, 1912, she went to Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League Convention, and she had met him before. He was the most powerful black man in America at the time. He really wielded a tremendous amount of power. He had been to the White House. He was president of a black college. He was head of a lot of organizations. He pulled a lot of strings behind the scenes, and so most people weren’t willing to go up against him, but Madam Walker attended his convention in 1912.
A’Lelia: She was now on the map, because her business was becoming successful, but she also had contributed $1,000 to the building fund of a new black YMCA in Indianapolis. So, people were reading about her.
Nancy: Money talks.
A’Lelia: Yeah, money talks. And people were stunned, because no black woman had ever given that kind of money, but when she arrived at the convention, she wanted to speak. Booker T. Washington denied her the chance to speak, and as the days went on during the conference, it became clear he was not going to schedule her, even though she thought she had a great story to tell, and other people were saying, you should hear from her.
But on the last day of the convention, she waited for a banker to make his boring, I’m sure, remarks, and she stood up right away, and she looked toward Booker T. Washington at the podium, and said, surely you are not going to shut the door in my face. I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the kitchen. From there, I was promoted to the wash tub, and from there, I promoted myself and to the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations, and I have built my own factory on my own ground.
The next year, he invited her back as a keynote speaker.
Nancy: Oh, did that give her a standing … She got many standing ovations. Did she get a standing ovation when she just gave that speech
from the floor?
A’Lelia: From the floor. From the floor. You know, that’s the Madeline Albright. Sometimes women listen [crosstalk 00:32:52]. And there actually is a transcript of those proceedings.
A’Lelia: Booker T. Washington was excellent about keeping records, and the transcript does not note standing ovation, but it would be hard for me to think that she didn’t get one or that she didn’t … maybe people didn’t want to go against Booker T. Washington in that moment.
Nancy: Well, if there wasn’t a standing ovation, there must have been a collective gasp of breath, because-
A’Lelia: I think so.
Nancy: … she was saying something huge at the time. Actually, and this is … and I suspect you feel this way, too. I mean, this story is biography. It’s history. It is also so germane to today. I don’t think there’s a woman … There’s my daughter. She’s a Millennial. She’s read the book and taken away a lot of life lessons. I, her mother, have taken away life lessons. It’s just full of a kind of commitment, energy, smarts, guts that I can’t imagine any woman not feeling energized. I finished this, and boy do I hope someone makes a movie.
A’Lelia: Oh, a movie. It’s happening, you know?
Nancy: Oh, is it? Oh, tell me.
A’Lelia: Yes. Yes. So, you have done the book scene, the publishing scene, so I’ve had a few options through the years, but we have a real thing on the table right now.
A’Lelia: It has been optioned by Warner Brothers and Netflix with Octavia Spencer in the lead.
Nancy: Of course Octavia Spencer.
A’Lelia: Yes, exactly, she’s perfect. LeBron James is one of the producers, and the writers are supposed to start soon. So, I am really excited, and we’ve … fingers crossed. When the distribution … When I starts to air, when there’s an air date, then I will believe that it’s real.
Nancy: Oh, we can all have parties. A’Lelia, congratulations.
We must have a party, like lots of parties, all over the country.
Nancy: Now, we were talking about the movie coming up. Can we also talk about Sephora? Because Madam Walker as a company closed, what, in the 1980’s?
A’Lelia: Well, so you know what? It actually never really closed.
A’Lelia: I think I say in my book, by the time I [crosstalk 00:35:12].
Nancy: I swear I got that from you.
A’Lelia: Yeah, no, no, and I think that that’s what I said, but the truth is, it had been my family and another family that were involved, sold it in the early 80’s.
A’Lelia: And it was owned by another group from … for about 30 years, and it was … the sales were so small that I can’t really say it was not a thriving concern, but it actually did stay in business, but, and I had no involvement with it, but fortunately Richelieu Dennis, who’s the CEO of Sundial brands, bought the trademark from this sort of interim group, and relaunched it as Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture. So, it’s owned by Sundial Brands, one of their four divisions, and sold exclusively in Sephora.
Nancy: And I just went through the list of products, and there are some scalp creams. When I finish this, I’m running over there and getting it. Now, did you make that happen through your book, or is the Madam C.J. Walker energy just out there in the world right now that’s bringing in the movie, the beauty line being resurrected?
A’Lelia: You know, there are a lot of seeds that have been planted, and I think you know as anybody who’s in business, you do a lot of things, and you’re never really sure what is going to actually blossom. And so my role has been to just tell the story. When I was growing up, both of my parents were in the hair care business. My mother worked for the Walker Company. My dad worked for the Walker Company briefly, but was hired away to become president of a company called Summit Laboratories, which was one of the newer black hair care companies in the late 50’s. The Walker Company really had begun to decline by the 1960’s.
So, I grew up with parents in the hair care business. I went to hair shows in the summer with them, but my passion was writing, and my parents encouraged me to do the thing that was my passion. So, I had this long career in network television news, but on the side I was gathering information for what’s turned into four books about Madam Walker. So, I was just doing my thing, not really connected to the hair care business, but we got a stamp with Madam Walker. All kinds of other little things, and I’ve just been planting these seeds just because I needed to do that, because I wanted to do that.
And then it just seems, within the last five years, a lot of things have really come together. We are celebrating the 150th anniversary of Madam Walker’s birth this year. This is the 100th anniversary of her moving into her mansion in Irvington, New York, which is a national historic landmark. But it was sort of the first article that I wrote in Ms. Magazine, I think in 1983, and then the Young Adult Book in ’91, and The Stamp in ’98. Each one of these things, I think, kept Madam Walker’s story out there, and made people more aware of her.
Richelieu Dennis, who is CEO of Sundial, is originally from Liberia. He moved to the United States in the late 80’s to go to college, and he knew about Madam Walker. He ended up … and he wondered what had happened to the products, but he was the guy on 125th Street, 27 years ago when he started Sundial Brands, who was selling Shea butter with his grandmother’s recipe, when nobody knew what Shea butter was.
A’Lelia: And once Sundial became extremely successful, he came looking for what had happened to Madam Walker, and once he bought that trademark, he reached out to me, and so I’m the historical consultant. So, all of these things that I was just doing because it was the labor of love, have all now come together.
Nancy: Oh, I’m so happy. I wanted to do two more things. I said I would circle back to the man behind the woman. You know, we always say there’s a great man … a great woman behind a man. In this case, she had a guy who stayed at the office as she went off distributing her product, selling her product, giving her speeches. I mean, she was on the move forever. Even when she was sick, she would keep her schedule.
Can you talk a little bit about how … that was so significant, I think, to her success, is understanding that she needed an anchor, you know, back at the manufacturing plant.
A’Lelia: You know, I think you’re absolutely right. This is really key. Freeman B. Ransom, F.B. Ransom, Attorney Ransom, Lawyer Ransom, that was what people called him, was so critical, and you know and I know you need to have a good lawyer. Those billable hours look really horribly expensive at the time, but if you don’t pay them now, you will pay later, and she hired this very smart young African-American who had studied law at Columbia, who was a really righteous guy. He’d been a Boy Scout. No drinking, he was a straight arrow, but he was the person who was running the office on a day to day basis, was making sure that the bills were paid, was making sure that the systems were working, making sure that the raw materials were ordered.
She did have a woman who was the manager of the factory, Alice Kelly, but F.B. Ransom was the guy who allowed her to be the visionary –
Nancy: That’s right, and equally, I think, she knew she needed that, which again, just adds to her legacy. I mean, it’s so smart to know what you don’t know, and he also gave her heads up. If something was coming down the pike. One time, I guess, the agents were upset because the product was beginning to be sold at retail establishments, and it was cutting into their sales. So, he gave Madam Walker a heads up. You’re going to have a fight at the convention if you don’t address this, and they were in constant communication, which I also thought was great. It’s like they were in email contact, because throughout your book, they’re having letter back and forth always discussing business.
A’Lelia: Yeah, I mean, that is truly … Being able to have that record to see just how much they were communicating with each other.
A’Lelia: He’d give her advice. Sometimes she would take the advice. Sometimes she wouldn’t, but she appreciated the advice, and she really was smart. Another key to her success is surrounding herself with people who had the skills that she didn’t, clearly. She was a self-educated woman, very little formal education. One of the reasons she hired Alice Kelly as her manager is that Alice Kelly had been Dean of Girls at a black boarding school in Kentucky. Alice Kelly became not just her manager of her factory, but also really her tutor so that she could improve her grammar.
Lifelong learning was something that was very important to her. Her bookkeeper was a young black woman who had had the highest score on the Civil Service Exam in Indiana, and she wanted to go work in Washington during the war, but they wouldn’t hire a black person. So, Madam Walker was very happy to have this young woman as her bookkeeper. But she knew she hired people who could enhance her. She wasn’t threatened by them.
Nancy: Absolutely. And one last thing. She was a great philanthropist. I mean, very strategic in her money giving to show the boys that she was a power player, also to do good, and she also liked to live the high life. I mean, she liked to say to the guys, well, I got a fancy car, and I’ve got chauffer, and I never saw this as boasting as much as she really enjoyed living the good life.
The mansion that you’ve mentioned a couple of times, which was being built up next to the Rockefellers, she did it to show this is … You, too, can have this, and also I think to maybe the white world and the male world, don’t dismiss me. I’m up there.
A’Lelia: Yeah, she knew how to make a statement, and it was-
Nancy: She sure did.
A’Lelia: She built this mansion in Westchester County, moved in, in 1918 and where the Rockefellers and the Goulds had their mansions farther off the street. You couldn’t see their mansions. They were much closer to the Hudson River. She built her house right on Broadway so that when people drove by, they would know, and it was really about a statement. She hoped to inspire young black boys and girls, as she said.
But she also was really happy to be living in that kind of luxury having grown up in a cabin on the plantation in Delta, Louisiana. So, she had come full circle, but she also loved being in her garden. She had picked cotton as a young woman, but now she could be, as she said, as a farmerette in her overalls.
Nancy: A farmerette.
A’Lelia: Growing her vegetables and reveling in her flowers.
Nancy: And the only thing I regret is that she died too soon, and she said she had so much more work to do, and unfortunately just died too early.
A’Lelia: Yes, definitely died too early. The early years of working hard, no good healthcare, and I think there are some, certainly some lessons that we learn in addition to the success, and the drive, and the determination, and the genius, and the marketing. There also is something that, I think, we can take away from that, and that is we have to take care of ourselves.
She had the best healthcare available for her. She could afford it later in life, but she had hypertension, and the drugs and the treatments were not available for her then, but we know, if you’re not … If something’s not going right with your health, you need to get your checkup every year. You need to exercise. I mean, those kinds of things, I think, are lessons that we can learn from her as well.
Nancy: You’re right, but she was so driven, she just couldn’t get off the trail to go back and have a doctor’s appointment. She just was so wonderfully driven, and who knows if she would have achieved as much as she did if she hadn’t gone at that crazy pace.
I just want to say to everyone, I’m just so happy you wrote this book “On Her Own Ground”, and it really is one of my favorite books, because it’s … for all the entrepreneurial spirit we have now among women, we still have very few stories of successful women who have made a mark as much as your great great grandmother. So, thank you so much for doing it.
A’Lelia: Nancy, I’m just delighted to be a part of this, and to say that we’re so fortunate that Madam Walker’s legacy is being carried on in many ways. There’s an organization, Walker’s Legacy, that’s a media organization that inspires women of color entrepreneurs, the product line, the movie, and just sort of knowing for me that Madam Walker’s story inspires others is the greatest gift for me.
Nancy: Oh, wonderful. What a great close. Thank you so much for being here today.
A’Lelia: Thank you.
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ABOUT OUR GUEST:
Author and journalist A’Lelia Bundles is at work on her fifth book, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, a biography of her great-grandmother, daughter of Madam C.J. Walker, whose parties, friendships, international travels and arts patronage helped define the era. Self Made (previously published as On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker) — her biography of her great-great-grandmother — was named a New York Times Notable Book. It is now a Netflix series featuring Oscar award winner, Octavia Spencer.
A’Lelia was a network television news executive and producer for 30 years at NBC News and then at ABC News, where she was Washington, DC deputy bureau chief. She currently is a Columbia University trustee and on the advisory boards of Walker’s Legacy, the March on Washington Film Festival and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard. She serves as an advisor and Walker historian for the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture product line that was launched by Sundial Brands in March 2016. As president of the Madam Walker/A’Lelia Walker Family Archives, she shares the history of her famous ancestors through speeches, publications, documents, photographs and several public initiatives. She served as chairman of the board of the National Archives Foundation from 2011 to 2017.
She is a graduate of Harvard College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She also is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
OTHER GOOD THINGS TO DO, HEAR & READ:
- READ A’Lelia’s biography of Madam C.J. Walker, Self Made (previously published as On Her Own Ground) from Amazon, or get an autographed copy direct from A’Lelia here.
- LISTEN to A’Lelia read the book on Audible.
- WATCH the four-part series, “Self Made,” starring Octavia Spencer on Netflix.
- LEARN more about Madam Walker’s mansion, currently being turned into a center for entrepreneurs.