On Her Own Ground
Madam Walker Theatre Center
All About Madam C.J. Walker
Originally published as ‘On Her Own Ground’
On Her Own Ground is the first full-scale, definitive biography of Madam C. J. Walker—the legendary African American entrepreneur and philanthropist—by her great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles
The daughter of formerly enslaved parents, Madam C. J. Walker was orphaned at seven, married at fourteen and widowed at twenty. She spent the better part of the next two decades laboring as a washerwoman for $1.50 a week. Then—with the discovery of a revolutionary hair care formula for black women—everything changed. By her death in 1919, Walker managed to overcome astonishing odds: building a storied beauty empire from the ground up, amassing wealth unprecedented among black women and devoting her life to philanthropy and social activism. Along the way, she formed friendships with great early-twentieth-century political figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington
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Madam C. J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana in 1867 to parents who had been enslaved before the Civil War. Orphaned at seven, married at fourteen and widowed at twenty, she spent the better part of the next two decades laboring as a washerwoman for $1.50 a week. Then—with the discovery of a revolutionary hair care formula for black women—everything changed. By her death in 1919, Walker managed to overcome astonishing odds: building a storied beauty empire from the ground up, amassing wealth unprecedented among black women and devoting her life to philanthropy and social activism. Along the way, she formed friendships with great early-twentieth-century political figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune.
On Her Own Ground is not only the first comprehensive biography of one of recent history’s most amazing entrepreneurs and philanthropists, it is about a woman who is truly an African American icon. Drawn from more than two decades of exhaustive research, the book is enriched by the author’s exclusive access to personal letters, records and never-before-seen photographs from the family collection. Bundles also showcases Walker’s complex relationship with her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, a celebrated hostess of the Harlem Renaissance and renowned friend to both Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. In chapters such as “Freedom Baby,” “Motherless Child,” “Bold Moves” and “Black Metropolis,” Bundles traces her ancestor’s improbable rise to the top of an international hair care empire that would be run by four generations of Walker women and exists today as MCJW Beauty Culture, a division of Sundial Brands. Along the way, On Her Own Ground reveals surprising insights, tells fascinating stories and dispels many misconceptions.
The New Yorker (March 19, 2001)
Bundles’s great-great-grandmother Madam C. J. Walker founded a cosmetics empire in the early nineteen-hundreds. Born in 1867 to former slaves on a Louisiana plantation, Walker was working as a laundress in St. Louis in the eighteen-nineties when she began losing her hair. First, she developed the scalp ointments that would make her rich; then she established a network of black women to use and sell the products, who went on to escape poverty as she had. After years of contributing to black charities and anti-lynching campaigns, she died in her Westchester mansion, not far from the Rockefeller estate. The author’s extensive research and unemphatic style encourage readers to find their own relation to this exemplary American figure.
The New York Times (April 1, 2001)
Walker’s biographer and great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, does not overestimate her importance when she calls Walker one of the pioneers in her use of direct sales (the Fuller Brush Company was founded in 1906, the same year as Walker’s), marketing strategies and commissions. Bundles writes: ”As an early advocate of women’s economic independence she provided lucrative incomes for thousands of African-American women who otherwise would have been consigned to jobs as farm laborers, washerwomen and maids.” Walker’s philanthropy ranged from the virtuous Y.W.C.A. to the radical N.A.A.C.P.; she began her career soliciting Booker T. Washington’s approval and ended it working with W. E. B. Du Bois, Monroe Trotter and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Shortly before she died in 1919, she planned to organize her sales agents into local clubs that could use their economic clout to protest lynching and other civil rights abuses while improving conditions in their communities.
Tiffany Gill “Not Even Past” (July 2011)
Madam C.J. Walker is the best known of the pioneering generation of beauty culture educators and manufacturers, and A’Lelia Bundles’ well researched book is the first biography of this industry mogul. Bundles, who is Walker’s great-great granddaughter, takes the reader on a journey from Walker’s humble beginnings as the child of a Louisiana sharecropper to the end of her life when she died as one of the wealthiest black women of the early twentieth century. In addition, the book provides an in depth examination of the entrepreneurial challenges and triumphs of the early black beauty industry.
The Madam C.J. Walker Theatre Center
More than 200 photos with dozens of vintage images from the Madam Walker Family Archives! A quick and easy introduction to the Walker story!
As they watched construction of the block-long flatiron building brick by brick throughout 1927, African American residents of Indianapolis could scarcely contain their pride. This new headquarters of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, with its terra-cotta trimmed facade, was to be more than corporate offices and a factory for what then was one of America’s most successful black businesses.
In fact, it was designed as “a city within a city,” with an African Art Deco theater, ballroom, restaurant, drugstore, beauty salon, beauty school, and medical offices. Generations of African American families met for Sunday dinner at the Coffee Pot, enjoyed first-run movies and live performances in the Walker Theatre, and hosted dances in the Casino. Today, this National Historic Landmark is an arts center anchoring the Indiana Avenue Cultural District.
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All About Madam C.J. Walker
An easy to read Madam Walker biography geared to 4th to 7th grade readers, but a quick introduction for all readers!
Madam C. J. Walker was beloved within her community for her philanthropy and expanding the local black YMCA, but she couldn’t have done that if she weren’t the first female self-made millionaire and one of the most successful African American business owners ever.
Born Sarah Breedlove, she was the first person born free in her family. She married Charles Joseph Walker and became known as Madam C. J. Walker, the name she would later use on her haircare products. After talking with her brothers, who were barbers, and experiencing problems with hair loss, she developed a formula that healed scalp infections. This inspired her to start her own line of hair care products to do things like reduce dandruff, grow longer hair, smooth hair, or prevent baldness. Her company employed thousands of door-to-door saleswomen from all over the United States and the Caribbean.
She supported the African American community by making a $1000 contribution for a new YMCA building in Indianapolis, funding scholarships for Tuskegee Institute and Daytona Normal Institute for Girls, and becoming a patron of the arts in the early years of the Harlem Renaissance.
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Photos from the Madam Walker Family Archives are available for licensing. For these and more images, contact us for pricing and details.
The Madam Walker Archives
The Madam Walker Family Archives is the world’s largest private collection of photographs, letters, business records, legal documents, furniture, clothing and personal artifacts belonging to Madam Walker and her daughter, A’Lelia Walker.
For reporters, producers and publishers seeking more information about the archives, please call A’Lelia Bundles at 202.599.1458 or click the button below.
Madam C.J. Walker 'Model T' T-Shirt
Featuring the iconic photo of Madam Walker driving the Ford Model T.
Madam C.J. Walker 'Portrait' T-Shirt
Featuring Madam Walker’s classic studio portrait and signature
Madam C.J. Walker 'Million Dollar Bill' T-Shirt
A fitting tribute to the first Black woman millionaire!
Madam C.J. Walker 'Postage Stamp' Pin
A replica of the 1998 Black Heritage Series Stamp
Madam C.J. Walker Poster
Limited edition poster created for 1998 stamp
Madam C.J. Walker Postcard
Madam C.J. Walker Replica Packaging
A reproduction of Madam Walker’s Original Hair Grower box designed circa 1910
Joy Goddess (A'Lelia Walker) Postcard
Poet Langston Hughes called A’Lelia Walker “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.”
Madam C.J. Walker Stamp Package
Collector’s Item 1998 Black Heritage Series