Author to speak on famous family, overcoming challenges

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Author A'Lelia Bundles will represent Madam Walker's legacy at IUPUI's commencement. She is the great-great-granddaughter of the renowned entrepreneur, who worked out of downtown Indianapolis. Photo courtesy of A'Lelia Bundles

Fresh from practically defeating the Indiana Pacers by himself in the playoffs, Lebron James will ease some of the pain by helping pay tribute to one of Indianapolis' most renowned women. 

The star forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers has been attached as an executive producer, along with Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer, on a future Netflix series focusing on Madam C. J. Walker, the namesake for the Madam Walker Theatre Center near IUPUI and the nation's first African-American female self-made millionaire. James and Spencer are connected through the William Morris talent agency.

"What I can say is that the writing process is tentatively scheduled to start during the summer," said Walker's great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles via telephone from Washington, D.C. "Once the writers are assembled, they'll map out the arc of the story. I'm a consultant on the series. If all goes well and the planets align properly, I will be involved periodically while they are developing the storyline."

The series is based on Bundles' best-selling 2001 book, "On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker," which follows Walker's life from a Southern cotton fields worker to a poor washer-woman in St. Louis to the employer of thousands of African-American women in her own hair care and cosmetics firm, Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, based in downtown Indianapolis. The book was optioned by Zero Gravity Management in 2016. 

Bundles is finishing up another book, "The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A'Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance," based on her great-grandmother and namesake, who was the daughter of Madam Walker. A'Lelia Walker was a major cultural influencer in New York while representing the family business in the Big Apple.

As guest speaker at IUPUI's commencement on May 12 at Lucas Oil Stadium, Bundles will talk about those women and her own career as a former ABC and NBC news producer and journalist. Several thousand students and their families will be in attendance.

A North Central High School graduate raised in Indianapolis on Grandview Drive, Bundles received degrees from Harvard College and Columbia University before settling in Washington, D.C. Her father, S. Henry Bundles, was president of the Center for Leadership Development in Indianapolis and now lives in Florida. Her late mother, A'Lelia Mae Perry Bundles, was vice president of the Walker Company while being involved in Indianapolis politics.

Question: What are your thoughts on the timing of your appearance, especially with the recent partnership between IUPUI and the Walker Theatre?

A'Lelia Bundles: We're also celebrating the 150th anniversary of Madam Walker's birth. She was born in December 1867, but just a few days away from 1868. Ninety years ago, the Madam Walker building was officially opened. Next year will be the 100th anniversary of her death so we're fortunate to have much to celebrate.

It makes me extremely happy that Indianapolis continues to embrace Madam Walker. We're fortunate to have generous support from the Lilly Endowment, which was an early funder for the renovation in the early 1980s, as we also strengthen the partnership with IUPUI. It just seems perfect.

There's so much potential for interacting both with the history and the culture that the Madam Walker Legacy Center represents and with what IUPUI can bring in terms of scholarship, programming and, of course, the maintenance and are of this National Historic Landmark.

Q: How aware are IUPUI students of Madam Walker's legacy and the landmark just off campus?

AB: You could say there have been some missed opportunities for more interaction in the past, but I think that may have to do with how the campus was constructed and the physical orientation away from Indiana Avenue. The partnership gives us an opportunity to re-orient the relationship so there can be more engagement and collaboration.

I hope that my remarks and this partnership let the students know that there is amazing history and a rich tradition that is part of the neighborhood where they're going to school. They can see it on many levels, whether they're taking a history class, a music or drama class, an art class -- all of those things are really a part of the Walker legacy. Both Madam Walker and her daughter, A'Lelia Walker, were interested, of course, in entrepreneurship and in business. They were interested in philanthropy; the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is there. They were both patrons of the arts. So, there are many ways to develop curriculum and cultural engagement between the Walker Center and IUPUI.

Q: Madam Walker's philanthropy was astounding, especially for her time 100 years ago. Will you be touching on that aspect of her life in your remarks?

AB: The part of her success that means the most to me is that she used her wealth and influence to make a difference in her community. She had almost no formal education. Because of that, once she had the means, she thought it was important to provide scholarships for students. She wanted the next generation to have the advantages that she hadn't had. She wanted her community to benefit from her good fortune.

Q: What if IUPUI had been around during Madam Walker's time?

AB: Let's hope she would have endowed a few scholarships at IUPUI. I'd like to think that she would have had some interns working for her in her company and that she would have been mentoring some young people. That's the kind of person she was.