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Morning News

Great-Great-Granddaughter of Black Entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker Discusses New Book

Aired February 16, 2001 - 9:18 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Black History Month is a time to recognize African-American inventors and entrepreneurs, like Elijah McCoy, who invented an automatic lubricator used on the steam engines of trains and ships. So how about Garrett Morgan, inventor of an automatic traffic signal and a gas mask. And Madam C.J. Walker, who created hair care products that made her a wealthy philanthropist.

And Madam C.J. Walker's progression from washerwoman to wealthy entrepreneur is a truly remarkable story. It turns out her great- great-granddaughter tells that story in a book that is just coming out, "On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker." And A'Lelia Bundles, the great-great-granddaughter and author of the book is joining us here this morning to share her great-great- grandmother's story.

Good morning, good to have you here with us.

A'LELIA BUNDLES, AUTHOR, "ON HER OWN GROUND": Delighted to be here.

KAGAN: This is a book that's just coming out, but it's a story, I understand, that you've working on since you were a little girl.

BUNDLES: Really, I began to know about Madam Walker and her daughter even before I could read because our house was filled with things that had belonged to them. And this was just a story that I had to tell; I had to tell this inspiring story.

KAGAN: What is it about your great-great-grandmother that she was able to become this success? Was she a product of the time or a product of the person?

BUNDLES: She was really a genius at marketing and at motivating other people. And she was born right after the Civil War, just as African-Americans were becoming more urban and were becoming accustomed to being a more sophisticated life. And she really tapped into the desires of women to be more attractive and developed hair care product that was very appealing to him, and that hair care product made her very wealthy.

KAGAN: First her trek: first of all, her route. I mean, to go from the daughter of slaves in a rural environment -- and she too went to the big city -- how did she end up doing that? BUNDLES: She was widowed at 20, with two-year-old daughter. So she, in desperation -- she moved from Mississippi to St. Louis. Fortunately for her, she had three brothers who were there who were barbers, and that helped expose her to a more -- a better way of life. But she was still poor, with no education, and worked as a washerwoman for several years until she discovered this hair care product.

And then she traveled around the country and even to the Caribbean and Central America, teaching other women her system.

KAGAN: Also remarkable, she really doesn't make her big jump, find her great success until she's 38 years old -- which is sounding younger all the time, but of this time, to have been a washerwoman your whole life and then at 38 to find success, it's another incredible part of her story.

BUNDLES: It is. So she was really like a comet, and she just really zips through that next decade. From the time she sold her first product until the time she died was 13 years, and she had a meteoric rise, where she really began to use that money that she made, not only to help other woman have jobs, but as a philanthropist and as a political activist. She was really involved in the anti-lynching movement.

So she knew -- she had a vision of how to use her money to make the world a better place.

KAGAN: Which is the other part of the story: She's not just a women who went to make a lot of money, but she wanted to make a difference, leave an impact as well.

BUNDLES: Exactly -- and she really did leave an impact, and she showed all the possibilities for woman and people of color in that very volatile period of time, where she really, I think, is now a role model for anybody who want to be a entrepreneur. People are now starting to teach about her in business schools, because they look at her very innovative marketing and distribution plans.

KAGAN: Why, of all the things that she could have done and sold and been successful with, why was it hair care products?

BUNDLES: It's interesting that men who were in business were ignoring that part of the market this was.

KAGAN: She saw an opportunity.

BUNDLES: She saw an opportunity. Elizabeth Harden, Helena Rubenstein, Madam Walker were some of the pioneers in the early part of 20th century, before there was a commercial cosmetics industry. So they found a niche and filled it.

KAGAN: She had one daughter.

BUNDLES: One daughter.

KAGAN: And she had this huge company. What's her legacy today? BUNDLES: That she was entrepreneur with a vision to motivate women, to empower women, to give them economic independence, and then she used her wealth and her influence to make a difference in the world.

KAGAN: And what was her presence in her own time? It surprises me that such a great story we don't know about it as well as we should.

BUNDLES: Well, you know, I think that most of us just did not have, in our American history classes, the stories of women and people of color. And that's really starting to change. I'm so glad that young people are now getting a fuller picture of American history. So I think we will begin to know about some of those people who were really great, but who were lost to history for a while.

KAGAN: And hopefully, your book will be a part of that.

BUNDLES: I hope so.

KAGAN: A'Lelia Bundles, good luck with the book, thanks for dropping by and sharing the story of your great-great-grandmother, Madam C.J. Walker -- very good.

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