Meet A’Lelia Bundles, Journalist, Historian, and Community Champion

A biographer of the exceptional women in her family, Bundles is a Columbia fixture whose name adorns the Community Scholars program.

Wilson Valentin
March 29, 2022

A’Lelia Bundles is a truth-seeker. “I aspire to be a truth teller, but I really see myself as a truth seeker because I want to do the investigation, do the research, do the fact-finding, so that I can share it with others,” she says.

First published at the age of 8—a story about a trip to the moon that was printed almost a decade before the actual lunar landing—Bundles was already a journalist searching for facts by the time she was 12. “I was fortunate that our junior high school newspaper was led by a faculty member who had really high standards,” she says. “He taught us journalism, we had a textbook, we put out a newspaper that won awards around the country.”

Her quest for truth led Bundles to an award-winning, 30-year career as a journalist in network television news. It also led her to chronicle the exceptional women in her family, starting with her great-great grandmother, Madam C.J. Walker, the haircare mogul and philanthropist who created a path to financial independence for a generation of Black women.

Bundles is now writing a book on Walker’s daughter, the original A’Lelia, a Harlem Renaissance doyenne whose salon, the Dark Tower, brought together leading artists and activists, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston (BC’28), James Weldon Johnson, Paul Robeson (LAW’23), and Countee Cullen, whose poem From the Dark Tower inspired its name.

In January, Bundles collaborated with Sundial Brands and Walmart to launch a beauty and haircare line, MADAM by Madam C.J. Walker, that leans into Madam Walker’s original intention for healthy scalps that create healthy hair. “Throughout the pandemic women have been getting acquainted with their hair in ways that they might not have before. They couldn’t go to the beauty shop. So, it just seems like a perfect time,” says Bundles. “People have always said, ‘Are there hair care products? Can I buy the hair care products?’ I’m so happy that now I can say, “Yes, you can.”

In February, Bundles became the inaugural fellow of the Center for Africana Studies and Culture at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). It’s an honor that includes the establishment of a scholars program, Bundles Lectures, and an "In Conversation with A'Lelia" discussion series where Bundles will cultivate conversations between thought leaders. “It could be a professor at Columbia, it could be a business owner, it could be somebody who’s involved in philanthropy, and if something wonderful happens and there’s some serendipity that leads to collaboration between the two of them that would be my dream outcome.”

These initiatives were inspired by the A’Lelia Bundles Community Scholars Program at Columbia University, where Bundles received her master’s degree in journalism and is vice chair emerita 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.

Columbia Neighbors 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 for you in 2020. What made you such an energetic supporter over the years?

I love the Community Scholars concept of recognizing the brilliance of people who live above 110th Street. People who may not have already been on campus or didn’t have a PhD, but their work was really important. And it’s not just Columbia giving something to them, they are giving something back to Columbia and to the community. There are so many people who are doing really incredible work. Eric Washington’s book [Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal] is award-winning. Debra Ann Byrd’s work at playing Othello is just incredible. They would still be getting accolades, but I think the connection with Columbia, the access to resources, the community that it creates, the interdisciplinary relationships that they’re able to build with the other scholars, as well as other people on campus, just adds so much more to their work. I think it opens some doors for them that might not have been open, but also exposes the Columbia community to their brilliance.

What inspired you to trace your roots?

The last thing I expected to be doing is telling my family story. When I got to Columbia and was trying to figure out the topic for my master’s paper, I was really fortunate to have Phyllis Garland, the only Black woman on the faculty, as my advisor. I gave Phyllis some lame uninteresting clichéd topics and at the end of the conversation she said, “Your name is A’Lelia, do you have any connection to Madam Walker and A’Lelia Walker?” I think Phyl probably knew the answer—that only a family member would have my unusually spelled name—and when I said, “Yes,” Phyl said, “That’s what you’re going to write about.”

That was the fall of 1975. It was a really critical moment when there were still some people alive who had known them. It has turned into four books and a Netflix series and a haircare line and a stamp and other kinds of things, but it was really the power of a professor and specifically a Columbia professor who pushed me along that path. Phyl validated the importance of the story for me at a time when few books by or about Black women were being published. Now I know that this story needed to be told and I’m so fortunate that all of the research and writing skills I developed during my career as a journalist helped me to become a more powerful storyteller.

Is there anything that people still get wrong about Madam Walker and A’Lelia Walker?

After almost 50 years of telling this story, I’m really happy that more people now see Madam Walker as an innovative haircare industry pioneer whose role as an entrepreneur and philanthropist continues to inspire other women.  But there is still a lot of misinformation. While many people have told me they were entertained by Self Made, the fictional 2020 Netflix series that was inspired by On Her Own Ground, my nonfiction biography, I have to admit to some ambivalence about it. Octavia Spencer was great in the role, but I was not a fan of some of the storylines. While colorism remains an important issue, it wasn’t an actual source of conflict between Madam Walker and her competitor. I wish the script hadn’t become such a melodramatic catfight between two women when Madam 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 during that era. I wish the producers had given the audience more credit to wrap their minds around nuanced ideas.

You’re working on a book about A’Lelia Walker, how is it going?

Here’s one of the chapters right here [Bundles holds up a manuscript filled with her edits] because it’s never far away. Almost anybody who writes about the Harlem Renaissance will write about A’Lelia Walker, and you’ll see essentially the same paragraph repeated over and over again, and about half of that is inaccurate. I have just discovered so much about her life that is fascinating that I think will really, really surprise people.

It was A’Lelia Walker’s idea for the Walker Company to have 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 on 136th Street and then ultimately expanded it into a double townhouse with a beauty salon and a beauty school, and living quarters. It was both women’s love of music and culture and art that really planted the seeds for it to become an iconic cultural gathering place during the 1920s.

When you’ve finished your book, what’s next?

My real dream for the next decade is to read books and travel. I will always do nonprofit boards and I always want to do speeches and that kind of thing, but I really do want to just have a period of time where I’m traveling and reading and thinking. And then something will grow of that. That’s my dream for myself.