“The silverware that we used everyday had Madam Walker’s monogram on it,” recalled A’lelia Bundles during a recent WORLD CHANNEL virtual screening and panel about “Two Dollars and A Dream,” a film by Stanley Nelson.
“I also sometimes played with her mother of pearl opera glasses, and the baby grand piano on which I learned to read music also belonged to A’lelia Walker,” she said.
Moderated by journalist Tina Martin, the screening, panel, and Q&A was attended by Nelson and Bundles.
Until her years at Columbia University, Bundles, who eventually wrote Walker’s biography “On Her Own Ground,” didn’t know much more about her great grandmother. Like young A’lelia, many Americans had a very limited idea of who Madam C.J. Walker was until recently, when Walker began to be taught about in schools.
Even then, Walker was simplified as “the first woman who became a millionaire” and did so developing hair straightener. Netflix’s “Self Made,” based on her life, was made earlier this year. As well-received as it generally was, the mini-series didn’t go much deeper either.
Nelson’s documentary, now available on the WORLD Channel Youtube channel, and the discussion, did much to illustrate that Walker’s natural talent for business and accomplishments were far more nuanced than the elevator-pitch version of her would have us all believe.
Walker, far from simply creating a hair straightening process, developed a whole line of 23 hair and beauty treatments; including products for men. Bundles revealed during the discussion that the brand still exists, in fact.
Walker, who had almost no education, successfully executed a complex business model and marketing strategy, deploying an army of women to tout her product line.
Her products were sold not just all over the United States–had a multinational operation. Company executive Marjorie Joyner commented in the documentary, “There was an open market in the West Indies and in Europe because there was no one there at that time addressing colored people’s hair.”
At the forefront of her advertising strategy was something unheard of at the time: Walker acknowledged that Black was beautiful and she wanted to enhance it however she could. Said Bundles, “At the time, there was nobody saying Black is beautiful. Madame Walker was a woman at the bottom of the caste system in America, yet she put her own image on the tins.
“Other companies were putting European women on their advertising. Madame Walker drew a line in the sand and said Black women can be beautiful.”
Bundles revealed that Walker was a visionary who sought a holistic approach to finding solutions to hair health for Black women, often doing work that exacerbated hair issues. Walker also wanted to create jobs for Black women.
“She was concerned with how many women were able to get away from cleaning houses or cooking and have their own beauty shop and could be self-sufficient in their lives,” said Nelson during the panel discussion. “All of those things are really important about Madame CJ Walker.” Bundles elaborated, “She was saying you can have your own business; you can educate your children in real estate; you can buy a home.”
“Two Dollars And A Dream” also illuminated Walker’s deep entrepreneurial instincts. Though she didn’t have any education herself, Walker made sure she had the skills and information she needed. “She had a real talent,” Bundles said, “for surrounding herself with excellent people. The woman who became a manager at her factory was a former dean at a Black boarding school. Her bookkeeper had the highest score for the civil service exam in Indiana but couldn’t get a job because she was Black.”
FB Ransom, who was the general manager for Walker’s company and is the filmmaker’s grandfather, was an attorney who attended Columbia University. “He had all these skills that allowed him to function as her general counsel but he was also much much more,” said Bundles.
Walker was also America’s first Black philanthropist. The film shows Walker, indeed, put her money where her mouth is, giving $5,000 to an anti-lynching fund, $5,000 to the YMCA, and $5,000 to Mary McLeod Bethune.
At a 1917 convention, “Her message to the women,” declared Bundles, “was that your first duty is to humanity.” They sent a telegram to Woodrow Wilson urging him to support legislation to make lynching a real crime. We’re still trying to get that 100 years later. She was a woman ahead of her time.”
Nadine Matthews welcomes readers responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Two Dollars and A Dream” is available to watch on the WORLD Channel Youtube’s channel.