Madam C. J. Walker’s story has always deserved an expansive loom on which to weave the threads of her legendary life with the broad themes and major events of American history. As my great-great-grandmother’s biographer–and as a journalist who loves a well-told story–I consider it to be my good fortune both that she was born in 1867 on the plantation where General Ulysses S. Grant staged the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg and that one of her brothers joined other former slaves in the 1879 mass exodus to the North from Louisiana and Mississippi. I could not have fabricated a more perfect scenario than her confrontation with Booker T. Washington at his 1912 National Negro Business League convention or her 1916 arrival in Harlem on the eve of America’s entry into World War I. I could not have invented her 1917 visit to the White House to protest lynching or her decision to build a mansion near the Westchester County estates of John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould. Certainly when I learned that she had been considered a “Negro subversive” in 1918 and been put under surveillance by a black War Department spy, I was convinced that reality indeed was more interesting than most fiction.
It has surely been a bonus for me that Madam Walker knew so many of the other African American luminaries of her time because the work of their biographers has provided invaluable guidance. From the correspondence, papers and books of anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, educators Mary McLeod Bethune and Booker T. Washington, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People executive secretary James Weldon Johnson, Crisis editor W. E. B. Du Bois, labor leader A. Philip Randolph and others, I have been able to resurrect long-forgotten relationships.