A'Lelia Bundles: Family History
It's hard to imagine growing up in a family like that of A'Lelia Bundles. Her great-great grandmother was the legendary business woman Madam C.J. Walker. Her great grandmother - also named A'Lelia - helped Madam Walker in founding her cosmetics empire, and was a major patron of the arts during the Harlem Renaissance. Bundles' grandmother and mother worked as successful and influential executives in the family business, as well. The spirit of the woman who fought her way out of Southern plantation life to become the first African American woman millionaire clearly was one passed through the generations, morphed to fit the times.
A'Lelia Bundles grew up knowing that the women in her family were special, and she knew the basic stories about Madam Walker's path to success and about her contribution to history. She knew of A'Lelia Walker's reputation for throwing the best parties in Harlem. It wasn't until she was in college, though, that she realized just how much her grandmothers contributed to the world, and not just in the cosmetics industry. These women made a difference in business, in the arts, in politics, and they were committed to civic responsibility.
In college in the 70's - a time when young people of all races were embracing and celebrating their natural hair - Bundles was a little self-conscious about her family ties to Madam Walker. There had always been accusations that Madam Walker's hair care products were developed to make black women look more white, that she invented the hot comb for the same reason, and that she sold skin whitener as well. Having not begun the deep research into her family history yet, Bundles was under the assumption that the rumors were correct. After discovering an obituary written for Madam Walker by W.E.B. DuBois, though, she was prompted to do more research and discovered that there was a lot about her grandmother that she didn't know.
She found out that "for every fabrication others had created, there was a more profound and interesting reality."
Bundles began researching the history of Madam Walker in earnest - finding news articles, personal letters, and other documents that filled in the small quip normally dedicated to Walker's historical contributions. After twenty-five years of research, Bundles published two books about Madam Walker - one for young readers and another for adults. She discovered that her great-great grandmother did not invent the hot comb, and that her hair products were developed to cure a scalp condition common at the time - one that she suffered herself. Madam Walker was heavily involved with the community, making it her mission to give back when and where she could, and to make a difference in the lives of other African Americans. She stood up to Booker T. Washington when he treated her dismissively in a meeting, finally earning his respect and a close working relationship with him. She fought for anti-lynching laws, founded a black YMCA, and empowered African-American women to go into business for themselves, to be independent, and to give back to society as she did. In short, she was about more than hair.
Today, Bundles is preparing to put together notes from four years of research into a biography about Madam Walker's daughter, A'Lelia Walker. As with her bio on Madam Walker, Bundles will be ironing out the history of A'Lelia - dismissing the rumors that she squandered the Walker fortune so she could party. The fact is that the good times found at A'Lelia's home were there for the arts. A'Lelia Walker wanted her own identity away from Madam Walker, and she chose to center that identity around culture and the arts.
In her salon called the "Dark Tower," she entertained some of the biggest performers and personalities of the time, including Turner Layton and Aaron Douglas. Even though she wasn't an artist, herself, she wanted to make the creation of the music, theater, and art that she loved possible, and she stoked the cultural fire that burned in Harlem in the roaring 20's. A'Lelia Walker entertained royalty and political leaders, civil rights leaders, and business people, both black and white. She was the inspiration for characters by Zora Neale Hurston and Carl Van Vechten. After her death of a brain hemorrhage, Langston Hughes eulogized her with poetry: "So all who love laughter and joy and light, Let your prayers be as roses For this queen of the night."
A'Lelia Bundles, in her avid research and determination to tell the true stories of her grandmothers, has given anyone interested in black and women's history a great gift. She is telling truths and banishing falsehoods that have become encrusted in lore, as history often does. She is telling the truths of two women who, through their legacy, impacted the lives of millions.
Thanks for talking to me, A'Lelia - I know I'm not the only one who is looking forward to reading more about A'Lelia Walker and the arts legacy that she helped to create.
This was originally posted at YoLadies.com
Historic photos courtesy of A'Lelia Bundles