A’Lelia Bundles: Writing a Legacy

A'Lelia Bundles. Photo by Michael CunninghamA'Lelia Bundles. Photo by Michael Cunningham

A’Lelia Bundles ’74 felt the presence of her remarkable ancestors throughout her childhood. She remembers eating Thanksgiving dinner off china that once belonged to her great-great-grandmother, Madam C.J. Walker, an entrepreneur who pioneered hair-care supplies for African American women and built her empire by empowering thousands of other women as agents promoting her product. And A’Lelia Walker, Madam’s daughter and a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, left behind the baby grand piano that Bundles played as a child, as well as her name.

But it wasn’t always a given that Bundles would take ownership of her distinguished family history. As an undergraduate at Radcliffe College, she preferred to keep her ancestry in the background. But if any family member appealed to her more than the others, it was her namesake A’Lelia, who ghosted through the syllabi of the African American literature courses Bundles took as a student.

One day, deep in the stacks at Widener Library, Bundles came across an issue of The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine, that featured Madam Walker’s obituary. It was written by W.E.B. Du Bois PhD 1895 and read, “It is given to few persons to transform a people in a generation. Yet this was done by the late Madam C.J. Walker.” Du Bois was Bundles’s intellectual hero, and his praise made her reconsider her great-great-grandmother’s legacy. In graduate school at Columbia, at the urging of her advisor, Phyl Garland, Bundles focused her thesis on Madam Walker.

The cover of A'Lelia Bundles's book about Madame C.J. Walker, her great-great-grandmotherThe cover of A'Lelia Bundles's book about Madame C.J. Walker, her great-great-grandmother

The story could have ended there, as Bundles’s career took her in another direction—first to Houston and then to Atlanta, where, as a field producer for NBC News, she had little opportunity to do her own writing. But she was preparing to turn 30, and she wanted a byline before her birthday.

So Bundles called Aida Kabatznick Press ’48, who was then the editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly, and asked if she could write an article comparing the experiences of her classmates after graduation with those of the class of 1954, whose members were facing their 50th birthdays. The piece, which ran in the September 1982 issue of the Quarterly, was for Bundles a key moment that showed her “the power of raising your hand and getting involved.”

Five years later, Bundles wrote another article for the Quarterly, “America’s First Self-Made Woman Millionaire: A Letter to My Great-Great-Grandmother, Madam C.J. Walker.” The biographical note accompanying the piece proudly proclaimed that Bundles was working with the famed author of Roots, Alex Haley, on his biography of Walker. Haley was never able to turn his full attention to the Walker story, so Bundles decided to take it up herself. Working diligently during brief sabbaticals from her career in broadcast journalism, Bundles published On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Scribner) in 2001.

Now she is hard at work on another book, this time telling A’Lelia Walker’s story. Bundles balances her writing with philanthropy and volunteer leadership. She is the chair and president of the National Archives Foundation, where she did some of her research, a Columbia University trustee, and a member of the Schlesinger Library Council.

“I love the fact that the Schlesinger Library has always been interested in the papers of African American women,” she says. She plans to give her personal papers to the library. “There is nowhere else I would rather have them,” she says.

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