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Unpacking Harlem History

May 8, 2003

Unpacking Harlem History

By PETER HELLMAN

WHEN the movers arrived at her house in Alexandria, Va., in February, A'Lelia Bundles says she begged them to be "extra, extra careful" with the tall Queen Anne-style desk in the foyer.

Trimmed in green and gold and and embellished with chinoiserie, the secretary was more than a favorite possession. It was a connection to an illustrious family past. The piece belonged to Ms. Bundles's great-great-grandmother, Madam C. J. Walker. Born in 1867 to freed slaves, she was an entrepreneur who presided over a hair-care products empire that made her one of the richest self-made women in the United States.

The secretary was handed down to her only child, the regal A'Lelia (pronounced ah-LEE-lee-ah) Walker, who kept a salon for writers, artists and musicians during the Harlem Renaissance. Of her death in 1931, Langston Hughes wrote that the renaissance had died with her.

In January, the secretary will have pride of place in the foyer of Ms. Bundles's new home, a bungalow in the Friendship Heights section of Washington. Until then, however, it will be at the Museum of the City of New York, as part of an exhibition, "Harlem Lost and Found."

"What's extraordinary about the Walker women is that they were building great houses, hiring noted decorators and spending tens of thousands of dollars on household furnishings at a time when the earnings of a black worker in Harlem averaged about $800," said Michael Henry Adams, the curator. "Few white people had that lifestyle. For African-Americans, it was unheard of."

This is the public's first glimpse of most of the items in Ms. Bundles's collection. It includes Tiffany silver and Limoges porcelain, one of A'Lelia Walker's signature turbans (often worn with harem pants), a beautifully penned thank-you note from Enrico Caruso and a portrait of A'Lelia Walker by the photographer Berenice Abbott.

Ms. Bundles, an Emmy-winning news producer who is now at ABC Television, has been wrestling with her family's legacy since the 1970's, when she wrote her master's thesis on Madam Walker at Columbia's journalism school. In 1981, while at NBC News, she met the author Alex Haley, who asked her to help him with a biography of Madam Walker. Mr. Haley never made headway, so Ms. Bundles decided to take on the project herself, warming up with a young adult biography, "Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur" (Chelsea House, 1991).

Ms. Bundles turned up a few family skeletons. Madam, for example, had three brothers she never mentioned. She had three marriages as well — as did her daughter A'Lelia. There were lawsuits over Madam's company and criticism by some, including Booker T. Washington, that her hair products were meant not only to grow hair but to straighten it.

A few days before her mother died in 1976, Ms. Bundles asked her whether she should leave the messy details out of the book she was contemplating. "Tell the truth, baby," her mother answered. "It's all right to tell the truth."

Ms. Bundles's biography of Madam, "On Her Own Ground" (Scribner, 2001), evokes her own childhood memories, not least those of the secretary, which used to sit in her grandfather's foyer in Indianapolis. "In the entryway, as my mother knelt to adjust my hair bow and smooth my three long braids, my eyes always fixed on a tall, moss-green Chinese lacquer secretary," she wrote. "Letters, keys, stamps and paper clips tumbled from its tiny, gold-trimmed drawers and secret cubbyholes."

Years later, while visiting her maternal grandfather on his 90th birthday, Ms. Bundles found a wardrobe trunk that had been missing since her childhood. It was filled with treasures like an ostrich feather fan and a pair of jeweled opera glasses. A hand-embroidered wedding dress was folded in one drawer. The license for her great-grandmother's second marriage, a spray of baby's breath pressed within, was in another. Beneath it was Madam's last letter to her daughter: "I send my love, kisses and kisses and kisses. Your devoted mother."

As morning light warmed the dining room of her new home one recent Sunday, Ms. Bundles, 50, sifted through cartons of memorabilia, selecting objects for the exhibition. "My grandfather had a family story for each item in that trunk," she said of the 90th birthday visit. "We spent a whole night going through it, too charged to sleep. When I saw the sun shining through the blinds, I had that familiar feeling that I was put on this planet to do family history."

She glanced appreciatively at her partner of many years, Frederick C. Cooke, a tall, bearded lawyer with whom she is now merging households. "God puts pack rats together with non-pack rats," she said.

Mr. Cooke shook his head in mock disbelief. "When A'Lelia was getting ready to move and I saw all this stuff starting to bulge out of their containers, I told her that I just wasn't seeing the physics of it. There was more stuff than space."

Out came a crystal hip flask in a silver jacket with A'Lelia Walker's monogram, and a square decanter, its lid inscribed with her name, its spout cleverly secured with a lock to protect it from the constant parade of guests at the Walkers' homes. One was a Federal-style double town house at 108-110 West 136th Street that was designed by Vertner W. Tandy, the first black architect registered in New York. He also built an Italianate villa for Madam in Irvington-on-Hudson, near the Rockefeller estate. The villa is now a National Historic Landmark but in an example of cultural clear-cutting that would now be resisted, the town house was torn down in the 1960's to make way for a library. A'Lelia Walker also kept an apartment hideaway at 80 Edgecombe Avenue, just blocks away and still standing.

Ms. Bundles dipped a rag in polish and rubbed the heavy tarnish off monogrammed silver hair brushes and a shoehorn. "This stuff probably hasn't been polished in 75 years," she said. "Not that A'Lelia would have done it herself."

"Here's something I love: A'Lelia's address books," Ms. Bundles continued, pulling out several worn leather-bound volumes. She pointed to a listing for Bessye Bearden, whose son was the painter Romare Bearden. "Romare told me that he remembered his mother and A'Lelia playing poker together," Ms. Bundles said. "Not many blacks had high city jobs then, but Bessye was on the school board."

Carl Van Vechten, the photographer, novelist and confidant of many Harlem Renaissance notables, is listed at 150 West 55th Street. Paul Robeson gets two entries, one in St. John's Wood, London, the other on West 145th Street. Another listing reads "Madam Ma Rainey, blues singer," with an address in Chicago.

Though A'Lelia Walker was charged with the family business after her mother died in 1919, she preferred to supervise Harlem's artistic and cultural scene. In 1927 she inaugurated a salon cum cafe at her town house, calling it the Dark Tower. A menu, titled Feast of the Muses, lists woodcock salad, caviar sandwiches and "A'Lelia's Ice Tea."

"Probably had gin in it, even though this was Prohibition," Ms. Bundles said.

The Dark Tower lasted only a year, A'Lelia Walker not much longer. She died at 46, soon after the splendid contents of the Hudson Valley villa had been auctioned off.

Ms. Bundles, who has no children, plans to bequeath her heirlooms to museums. For now she will keep her first editions of books by Harlem Renaissance writers in a bookcase downstairs, near a pair of chestnut and glass cabinets containing some of the silver and perhaps even the ostrich feather fan. The neatly marked boxes of papers will go in the second-floor study.

Ms. Bundles glanced at Mr. Cooke. "One reason it took so long to move in together," she said, "is when I was working on my last book I turned the house into one big file cabinet."

Mr. Cooke seems philosophical now that Ms. Bundles is gearing up for the next book, a biography of A'Lelia. "I'll just get rid of all my stuff, that's all," he said. "It's worth it to be standing on the shoulders of her elders."


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