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  • DeNeen L. Brown

Black wealth, racism and the legacy of the legendary Madam C.J. Walker

By DeNeen L. Brown September 1, 2016

Living History: Part of a series tied to the African American Museum of History and Culture.

A’Lelia Bundles, 64, of Washington, is a descendant of Madam C.J. Walker, who was the first black female millionaire in the United States. Bundles looks at two pictures of Walker sales agents during a convention at Walker’s mansion, Villa Lewaro, the home designed for her in Irvington, N.Y., by Vertner Tandy, the first black architect registered in New York. Walker moved into the Westchester County home in May 1918, a year before her death; her daughter then lived there. Today it is a national historic landmark as well as a National Trust for Historic Preservation national treasure. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

She remembers the smells of the hair pomades in the factory, where women stirred ointment by hand in great, black vats.

She remembers her mother taking her to Madam C.J. Walker’s beauty school in Indianapolis in the 1960s to have her hair styled in an Afro.

She remembers growing up with remnants of the black wealth created by Walker, who built an empire in the early 1900s selling hair scalp ointments and whose accomplishments will be on display at the Smithsonian’s new African American Museum of History and Culture, which opens Sept. 24.

“The china we ate on for special occasions belonged to Madam Walker,” says A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and the author of the biography, “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.”

The cloth napkins placed on her childhood dining-room table were stitched with Walker’s monogram; the baby grand piano on which Bundles learned to read music had belonged to Walker’s only daughter, A’Lelia Walker, a wealthy patron of the arts who threw lavish parties in her mansion in Harlem and Walker’s 20,000-square-foot estate, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington, N.Y.

Langston Hughes once called A’Lelia Walker the “Joy Goddess of the Harlem Renaissance.”


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