For Black History Month, theGrio decided to track down the descendants of well-known African-American historical figures to find out what it is like being descended from some of most the influential people in American history. Here is what A’Lelia Bundles, the great-great granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker, had to say about the joys and burdens of bearing a famous ancestor’s legacy.
A’Lelia Bundles, 60, was a Emmy-award winning television news producer at major television networks such as NBC and ABC, and has written several books about Madam C.J. Walker. Walker is credited with being the first female self-made millionaire through her successful beauty and hair product line targeted toward black women throughout the early 1900s.
How did you find out you were related to Madam C.J. Walker?
A’Lelia Bundles: I just knew! I grew up in a household where the silverware we used every day belonged to Madam Walker and the china that we used on special occasions had been her china…In my grandfather’s house, the books had belonged to her, her clothing, her mother of pearl opera glasses, photographs!
There are all kinds of things I saw that I was surrounded by, but it was really my research and using my skills as a journalist to dig and dig that I started to learn so much more about her.
What is something people don’t know about Madam C.J. Walker?
If [people] know anything, they knew she made hair care products and then they mistakenly said she invented the hot comb. We are trying to get rid of that myth. Now, I think we look at her in a multidimensional way. In addition to being a pioneer of the modern hair care cosmetics industry, she was a philanthropist, a patron of the arts, a political activist who contributed large sums of money to institutions and to the anti-lynching movement.
It’s not just hair care products – Madam Walker made a lot money and saw an opportunity to use that money to make a difference in the community to provide jobs for women and to contribute to the arts and political units.
Is having her legacy a burden or an inspiration?
I think having a very famous and very accomplished ancestor can put a burden on the descendants, but I’m very lucky that I had a very smart and wise mother who understood that each generation had to find their own interest.
My mother encouraged me to follow my own interests, and my own interests were to be a journalist. Because I did this on my own terms I was able to approach Madam Walker’s story that I could make the most important contribution. Because I had a successful as a network television news journalist, I gained the skills of how to make Madam Walker’s story appealing to a wider audience and I would say… I don’t mean to take all the credit, but my training as a journalist has helped Madam Walker’s legacy better known.
I think if I had gone to work for a company [Madame C.J. Walker’s cosmetic and beauty line] that was kind of failing at that point… [By the time I was growing up], it wasn’t really an important company. It had had its heyday from Madam Walker founding it in 1906 and until early 1960s. When I was coming of age, the company was no longer a big player. I was able to bring my skills as journalist and my passion for history to the telling of Madam Walker’s story. I think that my contribution to her legacy as the biographer is a greater contribution than if I had sold several jars of hair products.
How are you or your family keeping Madam C.J. Walker’s legacy alive?
The way that our family keeps Madam’s legacy alive is through the Madam Walker family archives which is the largest collection of Walker letters photographs, furniture, silver, clothing and other memorabilia.
We keep the legacy through two national historic landmarks. I write books, I do lots of speeches, I am on a number of boards that have to do Madam Walker’s legacy. I love to tell her story whether I’m talking to future CEOS or whether I’m talking to women who are incarcerated. I think they all can find something inspirational in Madam Walker’s life.
How would you hope Madam C.J. Walker would be remembered today?
It’s fabulous that she is known as the first African-American woman who became a millionaire, but what I especially would like for [people] to realize is that when she made all this money, she used that money to make a difference in her community in 1917.
So in some ways the sale of her hair care products became a means to an end. It wasn’t just about the hair care products, that wasn’t her main mission. Her main mission became empowering other women and changing her community.
Follow Brittany Tom on Twitter @brittanyrtom