For at least a decade I danced around the inevitable, knowing all the while that my soul would not rest until I had written my great-grandmother’s biography. Even before I could read, as I walked past her photograph and touched her belongings, I was beginning to sense her spirit, sometimes whispering, sometimes clamoring with the message that she deserved to be heard. Finally when I could no longer resist the lure of her important and captivating saga, I quit my job (my GOOD job, as my father reminded me), sequestered myself with my computer and a house full of research, and wrote On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker.
For as long as I can remember, I had gathered pieces of the story, fashioning the available facts into a manageable mantra: Born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, in 1867, she was orphaned at 7, married at 14, a mother at 17, widowed at 20. While toiling as a St. Louis washerwoman during the 1890s, she began to go bald. Miraculously, she claimed, the formula for the scalp treatment that was to restore her hair and make her wealthy had been revealed to her in a dream. In 1906, after marrying her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, she changed her name to "Madam" C.J. walker and founded her own company. When she died in 1919, many people believed her to be a millionaire.
Her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, was no less fascinating, having been crowned by poet Langston Hughes as "the joy-goddess of Harlem’s 1920s" because of her fabulous parties and flamboyant persona. Black newspapers would fancy A’Lelia’s adopted daughter and only legal heir, Mae Walker, as a tan Cinderella.
As a little girl in the mid-1950s, I remember inhaling the gluey aroma of roast lamb, Lucky Strikes, and old-man musk as I stood with my mother amidst the Walker women’s furniture and vases and oriental rugs in the sitting room of my grandfather’s Indianapolis apartment. Once Momma and her father had immersed themselves in adult conversation, I escaped into the Shalimar-scented haven of my late grandmother Mae’s bedroom, drawn time and again by a mauve moire silk vanity whose deep, slim drawers seemed to shimmer with magic. From the fluffy ostrich fan and mother-of-pearl opera glasses to the cool, ivory mah-jongg tiles and miniature enameled King Tut charms from Egypt, each item became a secret-filled genie’s lamp waiting to be rubbed.
In a quintessentially American arc of self-transformation, Madam Walker’s life began during the aftermath of the Civil War on one of the Mississippi River plantations where General Ulysses S. Grant had staged the decisive 1863 Siege of Vicksburg, then ended just after World War I in the splendor of her Hudson River Valley mansion near the states of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Fearless in her mission to advance her business, she boldly challenged Booker T. Washington when he dismissed her request to address the delegates at his 1912 National Negro Business League convention. Undaunted in her quest as a "race Woman," she and a group of Harlem leaders attempted to lobby an inhospitable and unreceptive President Woodrow Wilson on a federal anti-lynching bill after the horrific 1917 East St. Louis riot. Despite a childhood of deprivation, Madam Walker learned to move comfortably among the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois, Enrico Caruso, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Moorfield Storey, and relished the chance to share her wealth with the NAACP, the YMCA, and several black colleges and boarding schools. As a pioneer of the modern hair care and cosmetics industries, she created marketing campaigns and distribution strategies as innovative as any entrepreneur of her time. As an early advocate of women’s economic independence, she provided lucrative incomes for thousands of African Americans who gladly abandoned their jobs as sharecroppers and laundresses to become Walker "beauty culturists." As much as any of her more well-known contemporaries, Madam Walker helped pave the way for the profound social changes that altered place in American society.
A few days before my mother died in January 1976, I sat in the middle of her hospital bed describing the research I was doing about Madam Walker for a graduate school paper. Now that I was mining fresh biographical territory, I told her, I was beginning to excavate flaws and feuds along with the accolades and victories. But just when I needed her the most to help me decipher my revelations, she was too weary from chemotherapy treatments to focus on memories. "What should I do about these things?" I asked, fearing that I would not haw: her much longer. "Should I include this part? And what about that?" Mustering just enough energy to leave no doubt about her wishes, she leaned forward and looked into my eyes. "Tell the truth, baby" she said without hesitation. "It’s all right to tell the truth."
Her words were to become a liberating final gift that accompanied me for the next two decades as I followed Madam Walker’s footsteps from Delta, Vicksburg, and St. Louis to Denver, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis, then to Harlem and Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. Along the way, in the libraries, courthouses, and historical societies of more than a dozen cities, I learned of three siblings, a stepmother, and a husband Madam Walker had omitted from her official biography. Even more exciting was the evidence of her precedent-setting philanthropy, her political activism and her sophisticated vision for African-American businesswomen.