The great-great-granddaughter of Madam C. J. Walker, Americas first female self-made millionaire, has a new book .. and lots to say.
B.Seed : Thanks for being on Bright seed blog A’Lelia, journalist, archiver, author, lecturer, and the great-great-granddaughter of Madam C. J. Walker, one of the nation’s first, if not the first, female self-made millionaire. You went to Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You’re a trustee of the university. Why did you chose Columbia? What other schools, if any, did you consider?
Villa Lewaro (below) in Irvington, N. Y. built by Madam C. J. Walker, her “dream of dreams”
A’Lelia : Thanks for inviting me to share some of my thoughts with Brightseedblog. I’m fortunate to have attended Harvard College undergraduate school and Columbia for graduate school. Actually I’d thought about attending Barnard College, then Columbia’s sister school, for college because I’d loved visiting New York on family vacations when I was growing up in Indiana. But my father persuaded me to attend Harvard, in part, because he thought Cambridge was a better place for an 18-year old than New York. I have to admit he was right!
I got the best of both worlds. I truly found my niche at Harvard, made some wonderful, lasting friendships and became involved in the kind of alumnae leadership roles that led to my becoming a trustee at Columbia. I am still secretary of my class and on the advisory board of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. I wanted to attend Columbia’s J-School because it had a reputation as being the top J-School in the country. Being there as a student, and then as an alumna, opened many professional doors because so many of the faculty members were accomplished journalists, producers, executives and editors with connections to their colleagues who were doing the hiring. Through the years, it’s been great to have connections with both schools and with the alumni who are part of the community. As far as other schools, I also applied to Jackson College, which was the sister school to Tufts, and to Northwestern University, where I had attended a summer journalism program in high school.
B.Seed : You were co-editor of Northern Lights, your high school newspaper I believe. Newspapers are a big part of your life, as is Columbia U. What about the Columbia Daily Spectator. Were you ever involved with that paper? What do you think of the format – a school paper independently owned and run not by the school?
A’Lelia : Because the Spectator is really an undergraduate paper, it wasn’t something I considered while in graduate school at Columbia. As a trustee, I read it and am fascinated by how the students navigate their independence. I think they have a great laboratory for grappling with the important issue of freedom of speech.
At Harvard, rather than writing for the Crimson, I decided to work at WHRB, the radio station, as a jazz deejay in part because I wanted to have some fun with my extracurricular activities. That led me to an internship at WGBH, Boston’s PBS station, with Topper Carew, who was then hosting a weekly public affairs program called “Say, Brother.” Newspapers were a great foundation and still very important to me, but I ended up in broadcast journalism because I took one fork in the road rather than another. When I was about to graduate from Columbia, I had a choice between a three-month internship at the Washington Post in D.C. and a 12-month program at NBC News in New York. I chose the 12-month program because it meant not having to look for another job so soon! Now as someone who writes books, I’m able to use what I learned as a writer and what I learned as a producer. And these days, the lines between print and broadcast are blurred in ways that I think we could never have imagined when I started out.
B.Seed : A juror, I believe, for Columbia’s duPont Awards, that “honors excellence in broadcast and digital journalism in the public service.” Your bio also says “duPont Gold Baton 1991” Can you tell us a little something about that?
A’Lelia : I was fortunate to have served two terms as a juror for the duPont Awards. I loved doing that because it allowed me to see some of the best broadcast, radio and digital journalism that was being produced each year and to have a chance to be in a room with colleagues who care deeply about the future of the industry and about high quality, credible journalism. I was part of a team at ABC News that received a Gold Baton in 1991 for a multi-pronged effort at the state of health care in America.
B.Seed : A producer in Washington, DC for two of NBC’s magazine programs co-anchored by Connie Chung and Roger Mudd, a producer with NBC News in the New York, Houston and Atlanta bureaus for The Today Show and NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. Can you tell us who, if anyone, was most helpful to you in landing these positions?
A’Lelia : All those experiences seem so long ago! I would say the people who were most helpful to my development as a producer were the team with whom I worked in the Houston bureau from 1977 to 1980. My bureau chief, Arthur Lord, was a great mentor to me. He knew I was green and inexperienced and he allowed me to make mistakes without them being fatal. George Lewis was the first correspondent with whom I worked on a regular basis. He was the consummate professional, great writer and all around talent who could do hard news feature writing and war reporting. Bob Dotson, a master storyteller, joined a year or so later in Dallas. Don Critchfield, the producer who had much more experience than I, was extremely welcoming and helpful. The cameramen, Scott Berner and Henry Kokojan, were artists and strong journalists. And our bureau coordinator, Joyce Barnell, was supportive and nurturing. They all made me feel a part of the team and helped me learn what I needed to know to succeed in the jobs that came after.
Another friend, Ray Nunn, who was one of the first—if not the first—black executive producer at ABC, opened the door for me to make the switch to ABC. And my Washington bureau chief, Robin Sproul, offered me a leadership position as her deputy that I otherwise would not have had. I had some bad bosses along the way, too. And I learned what not to do from them. So it’s all useful in the end.
B.Seed : You do/did a lot of speaking engagements on many subjects. The Harlem Renaissance, television journalism, a Teaching American History Grant panel for Flint Michigan social studies teachers with Nettie Washington Douglass, a descendant of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington I believe, and Michelle Duster, a great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells. Was this grant part of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library awards grants program? how much did it help?
A’Lelia : No the Teaching American History grant wasn’t related to the Schlesinger Library. I’m on the Schlesinger Library’s advisory board, but have never had one of its Radcliffe Institute fellowships. The TAH program really came together because the Flint Public School administrator who was hosting the event had seen Michelle Duster, Nettie Washington Douglass and me in an Ebony article about the descendants of notable African Americans. We had a great time together. Since then, Michelle and I have done a few panels with Arthur McFarlane, W. E. B. DuBois’s great-grandson, and Charlene Drew Jarvis, Charles Drew’s daughter. We have a very nice vibe with each other and hope to do more events.
B.Seed : Three of your books: On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (2001), Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur(1991), Madam Walker Theatre Center: An Indianapolis Treasure(2013). I bought ‘On Her Own Ground’ last week – enjoyed it. It is also a detailed trip through early 20th century Black American History. What do you think about the idea of ‘reparations for lynching’ and reparations in general?
A’Lelia : Thanks so much for reading On Her Own Ground. That means a lot to me that you would take the time to do that. I’m glad you enjoyed the historical and social context. I really wanted to write history in the way I wish it had been written for me. And I wanted to help others understand what else was going on in America at that time as well as how some of the other well known people of the era were connected to and interacted with Madam Walker.
There are so many parallels between the violence that occurred after the Civil War and during Reconstruction when African Americans were making political gains and now. We certainly have made a lot of progress in the last century and a half, and yet it can sometimes feel as if the white supremacy backlash is at work again just as it was during the post-Reconstruction era know as “Redemption.” There surely are more people of good will, but sadly it seems as if there always will be a narrow-minded segment of the American public and body politic that resents African Americans. I am grateful to Ta-Nehisi Coates for helping to put reparations in perspective in his Atlantic article last year in a way that I think we all can understand. He surely made the case and shows how economic discrimination continues even until this day. It’s important to be armed with that knowledge, but I have to say I see little will among those who are inclined to oppose reparations to change their position, so I won’t be holding my breath waiting for them to come.
B.Seed : In the St. Louis Genealogical Society Quarterly in an article titled ‘BEYOND THE ORPHANAGE’ Part II (1993), Peggy Thomson Greenwood wrote: “Given the number of children institutionalized in the 19th century, it would be reasonable to suggest that many family historians could flesh out ancestral bones by investigating the records of the appropriate institution. While records vary, many hold a wealth of information.” Was this, or something like it, an avenue that you used in researching Madam Walker or some other project?
A’Lelia : I am a very persistent researcher with good instincts about finding clues and linking them together. I used many, many sources. When I was writing On Her Own Ground, I traveled to a dozen different cities interviewing people and going through microfilm and manuscript collections in libraries, historical societies, university collections and courthouses. My friends in the Association of Black Women Historians and in the Association for the Study of African American Life and History always have been supportive of my work. And, yes, little tidbits turn up in the most unexpected places whether it’s city directories from the 1890s or Congressional hearings from the 1870s. I’m very fortunate that I had access to thousands of documents from the original Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company and also that my grandfather, who was an attorney, had the foresight to preserve many letters, photographs and documents. That was the basis for much of my research. Today, as I write my biography of A’Lelia Walker, Madam Walker’s daughter, I am supplementing that earlier research with the digitized databases that I can now access on-line as well as some of the important scholarship in books and journals that has been done during the last two decades.
B.Seed : Madam Walker: “My desire now is to do more than ever for my race. I would love to live for them … I’ve caught the vision. I can see what they need.” You are on many boards-you list (non-profit) board leadership as a specialty. Do you think a company board and CEO (perhaps A’Lelia, or her lawyer Ransom whom she trusted) would have helped Madam Walker’s company for the future?
A’Lelia : Actually Madam Walker did form a board of trustees that included some of the black leadership of Indianapolis. That board would have benefitted from some new blood through the decades that followed and some of the best practices that we now know make for good governance. But it’s not really fair to make those kinds of judgments in hindsight and there were a variety of circumstances that affected the decisions they made.
B.Seed : You are working on a book now. The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance. How is that coming along?
A’Lelia : I’m very pleased with the progress of the book. I think readers will be surprised what they learn about A’Lelia Walker because much of what has been written about her in many of the recent accounts of the Harlem Renaissance is almost a caricature and often not particularly accurate. During the last several years of research, I’ve discovered that she was much more involved in the business of the Walker Company after her mother’s death in 1919 than I had realized when I wrote On Her Own Ground and definitely more of a patron of the arts during the 1920s than I had known. I have written several articles about the progress of the book on my blog at http://www.aleliabundles.com for those who’d like to know more about her life, her visit with Empress Zauditu in Addis Ababa and her trip to Paris, London, Monte Carlo, Rome and Cairo in 1921 and 1922.
B.Seed : You’re involved with at least two major archives: The President and Chairman of the National Archives Foundation and the Madam Walker/A’Lelia Walker Family Archives (some items from the archives shown below). Has involvement in one helped your work with other?
A’Lelia : My Madam Walker/A’Lelia Walker Family Archives is very small compared to the National Archives, which is the federal repository for the billions of records of the American government and the umbrella organization for the presidential libraries. If there’s a connection, it’s that I believe in the importance of preserving documents and records as a way to illuminate history. If documents aren’t saved and cared for, there is no evidence of the role that individuals and groups have played in the development on this nation. The story of African Americans is woven in to the fabric of America. We just have to look for it and insist that it be included.
B.Seed : Who handled the creation of your website http://www.aleliabundles.com and your other sites?
A’Lelia : Anthony Teat, CEO of Masai Design and Masai Interactive, designed my http://www.aleliabundles.com and http://www.madamcjwalker.com websites.
B.Seed : Spark Camp is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. It was founded in 2011 by Amy Webb, Amanda Michel, Jenny Lee, Matt Thompson and Andrew Pergam and was called “the ultimate summer camp for influencers” by Fast Company Magazine. You attended as a camper in 2014. Is that how you saw the camp, as the magazine says?
A’Lelia : I think that’s a pretty good description. I’ve participated in two Spark Camp weekends and will be going to a third later this year. Amy, Andrew, Matt, Amanda and Jenny work very hard to bring together combinations of accomplished people who are capable of leaving their egos at the door. They insist on a diverse group. It’s always at least 50 per cent women and, I think, at least a third people of color. Everyone comes with the intention of being generous and helpful. There is a wonderful spirit of collaboration and a sense of keeping an open mind. If there’s any pressure, it is to bring one’s best and most creative self forward.
B.Seed : Elizabeth Harrison, daughter of the 23rd president Benjamin Harrison, founded “Cues on the News” – an investment newsletter for women. Do you regularly read any publications/page by women, say like ‘theskimm(dot)com’ or something else?
A’Lelia : I regularly read such a wide range that it’s hard for me to tell you! In addition to the obvious “mainstream/legacy” press (Washington Post, New York Times, Atlantic, New Yorker, etc), I find myself reading a lot of pieces that pop up on my Facebook feed and on This. (Andrew Golis’s innovative social media feed) that come from MIC, Vox, Guardian, Salon, Grantland, Mother Jones, Daily Beast, Think Progress, Chronicle of Higher Education, TheNewCivilRightsMovement, Son of Baldwin, etc). NPR in the morning is my go-to source for news to start my day. And blogs and podcasts galore!
For women’s news, a lot of my Facebook connections on the Binders of Black Women Writers page produce great content. Kim Foster’s For Harriet is always great. For social commentary that comes with humor I enjoy Luvvie Ajayi’s Awesomely Luvvie. On Twitter, I follow several people who mix it up in an interesting way. I could go on and on. Whenever I hear people complaining about the state of journalism, I get it on one level, because, yes, the business has changed and some of the traditional outlets aren’t as must-read or must-watch as they used to be, but there is a HUGE amount of great reporting and writing these days. One just has to look for it.
B.Seed : So what are some things you would like to do/complete in 2015?
A’Lelia : By the end of 2015, I want to be finished with the manuscript for The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance. I’d also like to be doing more public speaking. I’m excited about the third annual March on Washington Film Festival, whose advisory board I’ve recently joined.
B.Seed : Thanks for being here. Anything you would like to say to our viewers?
A’Lelia : Thanks for the invitation to be a part of B.Seed’s conversation with your readers. I’d love to have folks check out my websites and my Facebook pages
A’Lelia Bundles https://www.facebook.com/AleliaBundles.Author
Madam C. J. Walker Biography https://www.facebook.com/MadamCJWalkerOfficialBiography
Helping Ourselves/Telling Our Stories, where I post historical and cultural links that interest me and that I hope will interest others. https://www.facebook.com/HelpingOurselvesTellingOurStories?ref=br_tf