Photo and Story by Eric Goodwin / Contributing Writer
Author and journalist A’Lelia Bundles discussed her family’s legacy of empowering women Wednesday in the Keathley University Center Theater for the opener of the Women’s History Month.
Bundles told the story of her entrepreneurial great, great grandmother, Madam C.J. Walker, born in 1867, who created the “Madam Walker” line of hair products and led a life of activism for female rights.
Madam Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, noticed that her hair began falling out from infrequent washing and set out to find a cure. Bundles said Walker’s shame in losing her hair sparked her desperation to find a solution.
As the legend goes, she prayed to God to help her find a cure and found it in a dream. She dreamed that “an African man appeared and told (Walker) what to mix up” for the hair product, including plants native to African soil. Suddenly, her hair began to grow back faster than it had fallen out.
While Bundles acknowledged the story as likely containing myth, the story highlighted the product’s effectiveness.
Its success enabled Madam Walker to open the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, which specialized in hair care products. Through Madam Walker’s hard work, Bundles said, the company employed an estimated 20,000 women.
But Walker’s work didn’t end with business; she also opened the Lelia Walker beauty school, which was named after her daughter, believing in empowerment through education.
“She really believed in lifelong learning, she really believed in self-improvement,” Bundles said. “It was never just about hair care. It was always about expanding and empowering.”
“In this process of when I began to write books about (Madam Walker), I realized that women and people of color had essentially been left out of the books,” Bundles said.
“Women’s history is American history,” she added.
The keynote presentation was followed by a ceremony recognizing outstanding female members of the community. A former 32-year-old MTSU faculty member, Gloria Bonner, who retired Mar. 1, was recognized for her commitment to helping more students attain an academic degree.
Bonner was the first African-American dean of an academic unit at MTSU.
Dr. Heather Brown, the chair of the university’s School of Concrete and Construction Management, was recognized for her achievement in the concrete industry which included numerous involvements with the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
Dr. Karen Petersen, the Interim Dean of Liberal Arts and a political science professor, was recognized for her scholarly work in political stability in Iraq, her work to improve faculty retention at MTSU and other leadership at the university.
Nancy James, the director of the MTSU Child Care Lab and chair of the MTSU President’s Commission on the Status of Women, was recognized for her commitment to early childhood education, leadership in women’s affairs in the community and activism in promoting legislation favoring early childhood education and equal pay for women.
Mayor Mary Esther Reed received recognition for being the first female mayor of Smyrna, Tennessee and her entrepreneurship as the owner of The Learning Circle, an educational supply store in Murfreesboro.
MTSU alumni Agnes Porter was recognized for her ongoing involvement in local politics as the government affairs specialist in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
National Women’s History Month events will continue through March. The next event will be a Women-Powered Tech Roundtable Discussion on Friday at 11:30 a.m. in the Tom Jackson Building.
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