These initiatives were inspired by Columbia University’s A’Lelia Bundles Community Scholars program, where Bundles earned her master’s degree in journalism and is vice president emeritus of the university’s board of trustees. Columbia’s program connects local scholars to the resources and intellectual life of the university for three years while they pursue a community-focused project. The first group arrived on campus in 2013.
Neighbors of Colombia recently sat down for a Zoom chat with Bundles, who was surrounded by a wall of books, to talk about her work, her family and what she wants to do next.
The Columbia Community Scholars program was named in your honor in 2020. What has made you such an energetic supporter over the years?
I love the concept of Community Scholars of recognizing the genius of people who live past 110and Street. People who might not have been on campus already or had a doctorate, but their work was really important. And it’s not just Columbia giving them something, they’re giving something back to Columbia and the community. There are so many people doing truly amazing work. Eric Washington’s book [Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal] is awarded. Debra Ann Byrd’s work playing Othello is nothing short of amazing. They would still receive accolades, but I think the connection to Columbia, the access to resources, the community it creates, the cross-disciplinary relationships they’re able to build with fellow scholars, as well as with other people on campus, just adds so much more to their work. I think it opens doors for them that might not have been opened, but also exposes the Columbia community to their brilliance.
What prompted you to find your roots?
The last thing I expected to do was tell my family’s story. When I arrived at Columbia and was trying to find the topic for my master’s thesis, I was lucky to have Phyllis Garland, the only black woman on the faculty, as my advisor. I gave Phyllis some lame and uninteresting cliche topics and at the end of the conversation she said, “Your name is A’Lelia, are you related to Madame Walker and A’Lelia Walker?” I think Phyl probably knew the answer – that only a family member would have my name spelled unusually – and when I said, “Yes”, Phyl said, “That’s what you’re going to write.”
It was the fall of 1975. It was a really critical time when there were still people alive who had known them. It turned into four books and a Netflix series and a hair care line and a stamp and other sorts of things, but it was really the power of a professor and specifically a professor at Columbia who pushed me down this path. Phyl validated the importance of the story to me at a time when few books by or about black women were being published. Now I know this story needed to be told, and I’m so lucky that all the research and writing skills I’ve developed during my career as a journalist have helped me become a more powerful storyteller.
Is there anything people still get wrong about Madame Walker and A’Lelia Walker?
After almost 50 years of telling this story, I’m so glad more people now see Mrs. Walker as an innovative pioneer in the hair care industry whose role as an entrepreneur and philanthropist continues to inspire other women. But there is still a lot of misinformation. While many people told me they were entertained by Home made, the 2020 Netflix fictional series inspired by On his own ground, my documentary biography, I have to admit some ambivalence about it. Octavia Spencer was great in the role, but I wasn’t a fan of certain storylines. Although colorism remained a significant issue, it was not a real source of conflict between Madame Walker and her competitor. I wish the storyline hadn’t become such a melodramatic catfight between two women when Madame Walker’s story is more about women empowering other women. I just thought there were a lot of missed opportunities to explore black women and the institutions they were building at that time. I wish the producers had given the audience more credit for thinking up nuanced ideas.
You’re working on a book about A’Lelia Walker, how’s it going?
Here is one of the chapters right here [Bundles holds up a manuscript filled with her edits] because it’s never far away. Almost anyone who writes about the Harlem Renaissance will write about A’Lelia Walker, and you’ll see basically the same paragraph repeated over and over, and about half of it is inaccurate. I just found out so many things about his life that are fascinating that I think it’s going to really, really surprise people.
It was A’Lelia Walker’s idea that the Walker Company had a presence in Harlem. She persuaded her mother in 1913, as Harlem was becoming the mecca of African-American politics and culture, that they needed to have a branch of their business in New York. And so they bought a townhouse at 136and Street, then eventually expanded it into a double townhouse with a beauty salon and beauty school, and living quarters. It was both the women’s love of music, culture and art that really planted the seeds to make it an iconic cultural gathering place in the 1920s.
When you finish your book, what happens next?
My real dream for the next decade is to read books and travel. I’m still doing non-profit board meetings and I still want to do speeches and that kind of stuff, but I really want to have a period of time where I travel and read and reflect. And then something will come out of it. This is my dream for me.