“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations…. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
— Madam Walker, National Negro Business League Convention, July 1912
Born into a former-slave family in 1867, Sarah Breedlove transformed herself into Madam C.J. Walker, an entrepreneur who built her empire developing hair products for black women. After the bloody East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917, Madam Walker devoted herself to having lynching made a federal crime; she later donated part of her financial legacy to support black schools, organizations, individuals, orphanages, retirement homes, and the YMCA and YWCA.
Author A’Lelia Bundles is the great-great-granddaughter of Madam Walker. She enjoyed a 30-year career as an executive and producer in network television news, including as a producer for ABC’s “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.” On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker was named a 2001 New York Times Notable Book.
Q: You do a remarkable job of evoking a black America that ran parallel with the America of whites. What resources did you find especially helpful in finding details about 19th century neighborhoods, businesses, parades, and so on?
Well, thanks very much for the compliment. As I was writing the book, I very much wanted to allow my readers to see, hear, smell and feel the world Sarah Breedlove inhabited in the years before she became Madam C. J. Walker. The black newspapers of the era were invaluable. African Americans were rarely mentioned in the major daily newspapers except on the police blotter or as objects of humor or ridicule. The New York Times and other papers had to be pushed even into capitalizing the “N” in “Negro,” so there wasn’t a lot of respect for or interest in the lives of everyday African Americans. But there was very much a parallel and very diverse society ranging from poor, rural sharecroppers to wealthy, educated urbanites.
Fortunately for me, the details of their lives— their political debates, social gatherings, church picnics, holiday celebrations, concerts and all the other mundane but humanizing dimensions— were chronicled in dozens of weekly newspapers whose publishers had a fierce sense of mission to uplift the community and to present its accomplishments.
Because I had no letters or accounts of the first four decades of Sarah Breedlove’s life— other than the brief, oft-told narrative she had crafted for herself— I needed a way to recreate the world around her. I spent many hours scrolling through microfilm hoping for that serendipitous nugget of information that would allow her neighborhood to come alive. I also gathered information from sociological studies, public health records, annual school board reports, city directories and other archival material at historical societies and local libraries in more than a dozen cities where she lived or visited. Senate hearings from the Library of Congress and Reconstruction era documents at the National Archives also were helpful.
Q: How has your background as a journalist and television news producer influenced you as a writer— obviously you’ve got a nose for a good story!
Sometimes I really do think that those many years working in television news were just preparation for writing books. My training as a journalist instilled in me a rather compulsive need to be faithful to the facts. There are times when I think any writer of nonfiction is tempted to embellish or enhance a story, but I’ve learned that if I dig deeply enough and follow all my leads and my instincts, I usually discover the actual facts are much more interesting and unexpected than my own speculation. In Madam Walker’s case that certainly is true. Her innovative and visionary spirit continues to amaze me.
All those years in the field working with camera crews and correspondents shooting stories, then working with videotape editors to craft coherent pieces that were compelling enough to keep the attention of a large audience, surely taught me something about storytelling. Perhaps what I learned during all those years is the importance of honing in on the right “sound bite,” the right quotation from a letter or article that captures the pivotal moment and then excising everything else that wasn’t absolutely important.
Because one has so few minutes to tell stories on television, I also learned to distill those stories to their essential elements and to find the moments of tension and conflict. Writing a book allowed me to stretch a story out, to create a longer arc than the kind of pieces I produced for television, but ultimately my television training made me sensitive to a reader’s tolerance—or lack thereof—for extraneous information.
I think I’ve learned that if writers respect their readers and don’t bore them with reams of material they just couldn’t leave out because they’d done so much research, the readers will indulge them a bit when they go off occasionally on a tangent. But one can’t do it too often!
Another key factor is my friendship with Roots author Alex Haley, who was a literary mentor of mine. On several occasions I heard him speak and witnessed his ability to spin facts into spellbinding stories. He was very much a model of a great storyteller for me.
Q: What need or curiosity was satisfied about your ancestor, Madam Walker, by researching and writing about her?
Truth be told, I was somewhat ambivalent about my relationship to Madam Walker. I grew up surrounded by things that had belonged to her. The silverware we used every day had her “CJW” monogram. The china and sterling silver punch bowl we used on holidays and special occasions were items my mother had inherited.
My mother— wise woman that she was— knew better than to overwhelm my brothers and me with the expectations of such a legacy. And as one who was in high school in the 1960s when hair was a battleground for young black and white teenagers, I needed some distance from my famous ancestor.
As time went by, I warmed to the subject and was determined to learn as much as I could. I realized that Madam Walker had really been reduced to a kind of caricatured factoid all related to hair and filled with misinformation. Being able to uncover details of her role as a philanthropist, a patron of the arts, an advocate of women’s economic independence and a political activist made her so much more interesting and multidimensional to me.
In the end, I wanted to be assured that she was a complex person who had made a difference in her world. I found myself using her life as a way to retell American history between the Civil War and World War I from the perspective of an African American woman. I wanted to write history in the way I wish it had been written for me when I was reading textbooks in high school.
Q: It was hard to identify anything in Madam Walker’s background that gave her such a tremendous acumen for business and self-promotion. Was it that she learned from the businesspeople she was associated with, either professionally, or as the wife of men in business?
I think now if I were rewriting the book, I’d put more emphasis on some of the people and experiences that I think influenced her before she became famous. I now realize I was a bit more tentative than I needed to be about some of my hunches. I wanted ironclad documentation to ensure credibility, but as the years have passed, I’ve become more confident about those hunches.
I think seeds were planted early in her life that gave her the resilience and drive that were the foundation for her success. She was born in Delta, Louisiana in Madison Parish, a place that had been one of the most prosperous cotton producing areas of the country before the Civil War. Because a great deal of physical labor was required to plant and harvest that cotton, the parish population was 90 per cent black. That black majority— which had been enslaved during the Antebellum era— became politically powerful after Emancipation and during Reconstruction when black men were given the right to vote.
The Breedloves’ family minister became one of the few black state Senators in Louisiana during the 1870s. After the backlash of “Redemption,” he later led a movement to help the newly freed people who were being exploited in the sharecropping system to leave Louisiana. In fact, he was bodily threatened and chased out of Madison Parish for organizing his fellow citizens. Young Sarah Breedlove was old enough to have witnessed the rallies in 1878 and 1878, so I think that could well have had an impact, especially because her older brothers were among the people who fled.
Once Sarah Breedlove arrived in St. Louis, she joined an African Methodist Episcopal church— long a source of uplift and education for the less fortunate— and benefited from the mentoring and nurturing of the middle class women— the teachers, clergy wives and nurses— who helped her to develop a vision of herself as something other than an uneducated laundress consigned to wash her customers’ clothes by hand.
Even as a washerwoman, she had a sense of excellence, wanting to impress and do the best she could.
I think some of the explanation to her success was an innate personal drive, a kind of genius that one sees in an Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford. Some of it was the result of relationships she formed with women like the members of her church who held leadership positions in the National Association of Colored Women as well as in local and state civic and religious organizations. I think her older brothers, who were barbers in St. Louis, when she moved there in the late 1880s, also were instrumental in helping shape some of her attitudes about business.
As time went on, she was like a sponge, absorbing much from people like educators Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune, journalist Ida B. Wells, activist and publisher Monroe Trotter, W. E. B. Du Bois and others.
Q: For some reason, Madam Walker’s social activism hasn’t received— with the exception of your book— as much attention as her success as an entrepreneur. And yet, she was deeply involved in race issues, similar to W.E.B. Du Bois, Harriet Tubman, or Marcus Garvey. Why has this side of her life been overlooked? Could it be a result of sexism because she became wealthy in the field of women’s hair care and cosmetics?
I think you’re very right that her accomplishments may have been taken less seriously because she succeeded in the field of hair care for black women. A little more than a century ago when she founded her company, the cosmetics industry, as we know it today, didn’t really exist. Men had ignored its potential, but women like Madam Walker, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein were visionary enough to create what is now a multi-billion dollar, international enterprise. King Gillette introduced his disposable razor around the same time Madam Walker began selling her hair care products. They both saw a need and responded with a product.
I do love the fact that she now is included on many lists of the 20th Century’s most notable entrepreneurs in magazines like Time, Forbes and Fortune. There is even a case study about her that is taught in a Harvard Business School class where the students also learn about Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey.
As to why her activism has been overlooked: I just think it got lost in the shuffle of history until scholars who were interested in women’s history, black history and multicultural studies began to reexamine American history through different lenses starting in the 1970s and moving forward to today. To the extent that she was remembered during the decades after her death, it was usually because of her hair care products.
Until I began to read her letters, the articles about her in the black press and her correspondence with people like Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, DuBois and others, I was not aware of the role she played as a supporter of the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement or that she had visited the White House to challenge President Woodrow Wilson. That knowledge was a turning point for me, because quite honestly, hair care alone was not enough to keep my interest.
Q: The term “Black Power” has been explained by some to mean black economic power. Would Madam Walker agree with the importance of this?
Absolutely. As a widow, who had made as little as $1.50 a week working as a laundress, she had no illusions about the role money played in American society. There was no financial safety net and no Small Business Administration to help her start her business.
She developed a robust direct sales operation that provided economic opportunity for tens of thousands of black women who otherwise would have been sharecroppers, maids, washerwomen and cooks. In 1917, when she hosted the first national convention of her Walker sales agents, the women told her how they had been able to buy real estate, educate their children and contribute to charities, churches and schools in their communities.
Madam Walker often spoke to her audiences about the importance of entrepreneurship as a path to economic independence, which of course can be translated to economic and political power.