Friday, March 28, 2014

Summary of "Fighting for Their Country, Fighting for Their Rights: Black Soldiers and World War I" by A'Lelia Bundles

On March 20, 2014, A’Lelia Bundles, author of the book On Her Own Ground, spoke at the President Woodrow Wilson House about the life of Madam CJ Walker and the role of African Americans during World War I from her research for an upcoming book on the topic.    

Bundles at the President Woodrow Wilson House
To put things into perspective, A’Lelia Bundles reminded the audience of a few important facts.  The 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation occurred during World War I; Harriet Tubman was alive when President Wilson was inaugurated; segregation and Jim Crow laws were prevalent during Wilson’s administration, 1913-1921.  However, Bundles said, hope was still alive in the African American community during this time with the growth of African American businesses.  These businesses were helped by the National Negro Business League, which was founded by Booker T. Washington in 1900.

A’Lelia Bundles spoke about her great-great-grandmother, Madam CJ Walker, who developed hair care products and is listed in many record books as being the first self-made American woman millionaire.  While her hair care business was revolutionary, the fame, attention and money Madam CJ Walker got from the business and what she decided to do with her influence was also important.  Walker was as much a philanthropist as she was a businesswoman, and there were many causes that benefited from the support Walker gave them.  

After her factory was built in Indianapolis and her beauty school opened, Madam CJ Walker made a large donation to the new Senate Avenue YMCA, stating that by helping the black men, she would also be helping the black women in the area, her primary passion. Walker raised money and spoke up for the anti-lynching movement.  She and her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, were also very influential in raising money and support for African American troops during World War I.

Some of the audience members before the talk
A’Lelia Bundles spent time in the presentation talking about her new research on the role of African Americans during World War I.  About one million African American men were registered for the draft.  At the end of 1917, the United States sent the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, later known as the 369th Infantry Regiment, to France to fight as the 16th Division of the French Army, where they stayed for 191 days in the trenches. The Red Cross also began accepting black women as nurses in 1918. Madam CJ Walker lived through this period of transitional societal roles for African Americans, and financially supported the black soldiers in Europe once American entered the war. In 1919, the year the Great War came to an end, Madam CJ Walker passed away. 

The history of Madam CJ Walker, and her connection to WWI and President Wilson, is extremely fascinating, and you can find out more on A’Lelia Bundles’ website:

Also check out this video of A'Lelia Bundles discussing Madam CJ Walker's philanthropy.

- Bethany Hagen

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