“Should I keep the myth going or tell the truth?” A’Lelia Perry Bundles asked herself when she began writing her biography of legendary entrepreneur and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker. Walker, long thought to be the first black female millionaire in the United States, is more than just a fascinating cultural figure to Bundles: She is her great-great-grandmother.
Some details of Walker’s life are well-known: Born in 1867 in Louisiana to sharecropper parents, she was orphaned at 7, married at 14, and widowed at 20. Walker pulled herself up from her humble beginnings as a washerwoman and, though uneducated, built a beauty empire through her keen sense of public relations and advertising, accumulating wealth then unprecedented among black women.
In most accounts of Walker’s life, this is where the saga ends; Bundles sought to fill in the blanks in her recent book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker. “[Her] story had always been a basic rags-to-riches, romanticized story,” says Bundles. “I wanted to create a multidimensional person.”
In her effort to tell the whole truth of Walker’s story, Bundles was sometimes forced to air her family’s dirty laundry. “It was a gift that my mother said, ‘Tell the truth.’ I didn’t have anything sitting on my shoulders saying, ‘How’s this going to look?’” Bundles says. “I realized that if I had been trying to gloss over the factsthe realitythat I would have been creating a flawless character, who no one else could hope to be like….I really want people to identify with her.”
Bundles, former deputy Washington bureau chief for ABC News, drew upon her 20-plus years of experience in journalismas well as her access to family letters, records, and photographsto produce her “labor of love.” Bundles, who lives in Alexandria, is named after Walker’s only child; she and her brothers are Walker’s only known
As she began conducting research, Bundles found that Walker’s story was much more complex than had previously been depicted: She unearthed misconceptions and untruthsboth large and smallthat added new dimension to her great-great-grandmother’s life. Walker did not, for example, invent the straightening comb, a creation often attributed to her. Her parents did not die of yellow fever. And her first husband was not killed in a race riot, contrary to press reports written after Walker’s death. But Bundles’ most significant revelation goes to the core of Walker’s notoriety: Walker was not a millionairethough extremely prosperous, she never achieved that degree of wealth. Bundles reports in On Her Own Ground that, at the time of Walker’s death, the true value of her estate was approximately “$600,000 with a large tax liability and $100,000 in outstanding bequests.”
“These last five years [of intensive research] have made me truly understand how much she truly overcame,” Bundles says. “I’m now in my late 40s, and that’s when she was riding the success of her fame. I feel pretty good about my success, but she truly represented what one could accomplish…to come from the depths of poverty and die in a mansion.” Maori Karmael Holmes
Bundles will discuss On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 26, at Olsson’s Books and Records, Metro Center. For more information, call (202) 347-3686. The National Press Club will host a “Book Rap” with Bundles at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27. For more information, call (202) 662-7129.