Leila (A'Leila) McWilliams Walker was the first and only child of Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) and Moses McWilliams. She was born during Reconstruction and only two decades after the Civil War, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on June 6, 1885. Tragically, two years after Leila's birth, Moses McWilliams died. It had been alleged that Moses was killed by a lynch mob.
After Moses' death, Sarah and young Leila moved to St. Louis, where Sarah's brother lived. With her meager earnings, Sarah was not only able to support her daughter and provide her a public school education; she also sent her to college. Leila attended public school in St. Louis and later attended and graduated from a private black college, Knoxville College, in Knoxville, Tennessee.
After the death of her brother, Sarah and Leila moved to Denver, Colorado, where the elder began a hair preparations company. Her intimate knowledge of hair loss, due to personal experience, provided Sarah the inspiration to create better hair-care options for black women who also suffered hair loss or growth problems. Six short months later, Sarah's business grew, and she also married successful journalist C.J. Walker. By virtue of being in the newspaper business, Walker had a keen knowledge of advertisement and mail-order procedures. Sarah borrowed from her husband's knowledge, and the two of them joined as business partners.
After their marriage, Sarah also changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker. Her decision to change her name, like many other black women, was brought on by their desire to prevent white people from referring to them by their first names, no matter who they were. In an effort to keep her name secret, she chose to be called Madam C.J. Walker. Unfortunately, she and her new husband began to experience incompatible differences concerning the business and divorced a short while later. She, however, continued to wear the name Madam C.J. Walker.
Leila was her mother's principal asset in business. Her formal education would benefit the company greatly. Leila therefore worked side by side with her mother. She assisted in product manufacturing, helped make business decisions, trained hair-care professionals in the Walker method, and traveled throughout the country as a salesperson. In 1906, Walker placed Leila in charge of the mail-order operation, while she traveled throughout the country promoting the company's products. By 1908, the company's growing success led the Walker women to open a beauty school named Leila College in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where black women were trained as cosmetologists in the Walker method. By 1910, the Walkers had 5,000 black agents selling their products on a commission basis. Amazingly, these women were able to amass greater wealth as Walker agents than they would have working as domestics. While helping other women set up in-home beauty shops and teaching bookkeeping techniques, Walker agents averaged over $1,000 over a seven-day period.
In 1913 Leila, who now referred to herself as A'Leila, moved part of the business to New York, where she established another Leila College. She also married and became A'Leila Walker Robinson. A'Leila's marriage to Robinson was short-lived, and she would subsequently marry two more times before her death in 1931. Before her divorce from Robinson, A'Leila adopted a daughter named Mae Bryant Perry in 1912.
Although unsuccessful in marriage, she was a successful businessperson. In addition to running Leila College in New York, A'Leila set up a special correspondence course that cost $25 to take. Students who completed the course received diplomas and contracts from Leila College. By the time of her mother's death in 1919, the Walker Company had amassed great wealth, making Madam C.J. Walker the first African American female millionaire. A'Leila, devastated by her mother's death, threw herself into the business of running the company.
Like her mother, A'Leila would make a mark on the Walker Company as well. In 1928, she established the Walker Company Building located at 617 Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis. The building then included the Walker Manufacturing Company, the Walker College of Beauty Culture, a beauty salon, barbershop, pharmacy, grocery store, professional offices, and the Majestic Walker Theatre. As a testament to A'Leila's genius, the Walker Building was the first black-owned and -operated building of its kind in the United States. The building and the company became a refuge for all members of the black community including professionals, entrepreneurs, and patrons of the arts. Since blacks were denied use of white office buildings at the time, the Walker building filled a void that was otherwise impenetrable. In 1988, the Walker Building underwent some much-needed renovations and once again became the center of black life in Indianapolis. It has since been placed on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
When Madam C.J. Walker died, she left A'Leila the bulk of her estate and the mansion, Villa Lewaro, located in the village of Irvington, New York. A'Leila also owned a townhouse on New York's 136th Street. The famous mansion had been christened "The Dark Tower" after Countee Cullen's column in Opportunity magazine.
Walker and her Dark Tower became synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance and many of the great artists of the 1920s. The Dark Tower drew in scholars, musicians, artists, and people of all races, varied sexual orientation, and social status. There, Walker entertained notable African American writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson. Intellectuals and activists like W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and artist Aaron Douglas were also among her guests.
In 1922, her interest in Africa led Walker to become one of the only Westerners to visit Ethiopian Empress Waizeru Zauditu. She also traveled to other parts of the world including Europe, South America, and the Middle East in the 1920s. Toward the end of the decade, weekend parties and drinking began to take their toll on Walker. With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the Dark Tower would suffer, and by 1930 it closed. Walker even auctioned off antiques and luxury items.
On August 16, 1931, Walker died after hosting a birthday party for a friend. All of Harlem's greats and many unknowns came out to show their respect. Her funeral was eulogized by Adam Clayton Powell Sr.; Bethune College founder Mary McLeod Bethune spoke of the legacy of both Walker women; and Langston Hughes contributed a poem titled "To A'Leila." As a testament to their dedication and support for the black community, the Walker mansion, Villa Lewaro, was bequeathed to the NAACP. Sadly, the NAACP sold the building due to the organization's financial crisis in the 1930s.
The Madam C. J. Walker Papers are located at the Indiana Historical Society Library in Indianapolis, Indiana. A'Leila Bundles, granddaughter of A'Leila Walker, published a biography about her namesake in 2001.
Baiyina W. Muhammad
Bundles, A'Leila. On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madame C. J. Walker. New York: Scribner, 2001; Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1940; Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1993; Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.