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tv   Madam C.J. Walkers Life in Film  CSPAN  March 24, 2021 10:52pm-11:35pm EDT

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next, on american history tv, a lilia bundles talks about self made a 2020 october spencer. this series is an adaptation of her book, on her own ground the, life and times of madam c.j. walker, which profiles were great great grandmother, the creator of the first african american hair care empire. the national archives foundation hosted this event video. >> so let me introduce our special guest, i have known her for seven years, besides being a well respected author and historian, she used to be my boss as the chair of the national archives foundation. so, we've known each other and been through a lot, i, lilia first of, all how are you doing? how is your family? doing >> no, i'm really feeling a sense of gratitude because we are healthy and have a roof
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over a heads but you know, a lot of thoughts are out to people who are finding this really challenging time. >> yes, we're so pleased that folks are able to join from wherever they are. we've got williamsburg, we've got pennsylvania, we've got virginia, savannah georgia, of course d.c.. we've got palm desert california, excellent, so we've got the country covered. this is terrific. well, let's talk about you a little bit. the closest i get to fame, you know, most people think i'm related to the famous football coach, which i always say is a distant uncle. not sure how distant. but you are great great grandmother was madam c.j. walker. so you must have been famous growing up as a kid in indianapolis. >> so my great great grandmother, madam c.j. walker who founded this amazing hair care company was the person --
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the place my mother went to work every day. my mother was the vice president of the madam c.j. walker manufacturing company. she was born on a plantation in delta, louisiana right up to the civil war. lots of's civil records in the national archives and developed a hair care product and then became a millionaire and a philanthropist employed thousands of women. so her story is pretty amazing and praise the american rags to riches story. >> absolutely. i want to hear more about that. about her in a little bit. but you were a successful producer and executive and television and so, i do you go from the action-packed life to writing a biography? >> so, there is this picture that was just of me with my family when i was a kid. you know i had talked about was like for me to be madam walker's great great granddaughter when i was
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growing up. so, you know, it was great to have my mom at the company and to really, nobody asked me to go into the family business, that was not my interest but my parents and we're showing this picture of me as a kid with my parents and my brother. because my real passion was writing. and both of my parents encouraged me to do that, i became a journalist and i was telling lots of other people's stories, and all the while, i had this pretty amazing story of my family, no books had ever been written about when walker's when i was in graduate school at columbia and journalism, my advisor said, that's why you need to write about. >> that's amazing. so take us through an image from the company. talk us through the company and some of your answers. >> so madam walker, as i said, was born on the plantation at
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delta year louisiana in 1867, right after the civil war and again, i did research at the national archives because the same plantation was where grant, general grant stage the siege of vicksburg. but she was orphaned at seven, married at 14 to get a home of her own to escape an abusive situation with a brother-in-law. moved from there to st. louis, where her brothers were barbers. and joint st. paul church and the women of the church began to give her a vision of herself. so by the time you, you see a picture of her in a model tea in indiana. this journey that went from being a washer woman, earning a dollar 50 cents a day, founding her company, making moving to denver, moving to pittsburgh and then ultimately ending up where you see her in indianapolis driving her car. then this is her daughter, amelia walker who was really the apple of her eye and the
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motivation for her success. she was running the pittsburgh office while madam walker was indianapolis and persuaded her mother where they needed to have a presence in harlem. so they bought a building in harlem in 1913, just as harlem was becoming the center for culture and politics for african americans. and then you'll see in the next picture, my grandmother may, and you see my grandmother has very long braids. and the main product, the biggest seller for the walker company was madam walker's wonderful hair grow where. and so, may was a model for the walker company, and there's an interesting little twist to the story with me. she was adopted by ali liu walker and her biological family, the walker women had known her uncle and they met her mother and her grandmother, her father had recently died and she was running errands for
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them and traveling with madame walker as a model and madame walker was saying, my wonderful hair grow or. and you see this person with wonderful long braids. so that's may and then the next picture is hefty ransom, madam walker's attorney and so for people who have seen the self-made series, there is a character in the series and he was very trusted attorney and i think one of the reasons that her legacy is remembered in part because her daughter was in new york and she was very famous, she traveled all over the world but also she was smart enough to hire a really great lawyer. so people in the audience where lawyers are who have good lawyers or do you have good lawyers, know the importance of a great lawyer. sure, so you mentioned the search, i have a and who did the research in my family going back generations in germany, ireland, great records, she spent time in the national
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archives. she's delivered to the most of my generation in a binder, when he started the research was at all organized, tell me about the records, how hard was it to get to the truth and the details? >> in several different ways. one really important body of material, literally, almost 50,000 records that were saved in part by -- and her secretary, violet davis records, who started working at the company in 1914 when she was a teenager was my neighbor when i was growing up, and in the 1970s mrs. reynolds was still working for the walker company. but she had saved all of these documents. and those documents were donated to the indiana historical society. they've all been digitized. but when i first started doing my research, i had photocopies of those things. that was kind of the corpus of my research. but i had things that my
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grandfather saved. family records, photographs, scrapbooks, books from emilia walker's library. then i did some research as i said at the national archives. and madame walker the first 38 years of her life there were no records because she was a poor person, because she had been born on this plantation that was a staging area for pittsburgh, the national archives has tons of records that give me a sense of what was going on there. i know that the national archives is great for anybody who's doing genealogy. you are very lucky that your relative organize things and put it in a -- for you, because most people don't have that luxury. very grateful. very grateful for that. so the national archives, the indiana historic site, attics, basements, other places you could pull all the stuff together. where is the material now? are you the keeper of that?
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tell us a little bit about that. i have my own madam walker family archives which is two rows of my house. biles, boxes, i keep finding things, just really recently i got a new trove of material. my grandfather was really the keeper of things for many, many years, after william walker died my grandmother used -- moved her things from her apartment to her minneapolis apartment. these were things that i would never see. really, within the last two years, the nephew of the founder of the storage company found some things in the back of the warehouse, so amazing pictures of walker in egypt. so these things are in my house. soon to go to another archive. as soon as i am finished the book that i'm writing about
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amelia walker. >> excellent. you have a chance to pitch that a little bit. so i want to remind those of you who have joined us that we will be taking questions a little bit. as you're thinking of them if you want to send them in the chat box now that's the place to do. it will send them to the national archives foundation accounts, now we have the history, we have a little bit of the truth here about how the story goes. so now let's move from relive to the movies. there are some folks online. those who haven't seen the series yet on netflix. we have the trailer so we will share the trailer, catch everybody up to speed. ♪ ♪ ♪ >> it is time to tell my story. >> it seems like i was born
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struggling. after a while i guess i lost hope, i'm going to help you. my hair grew back, and so did my confidence. , i don't think that sells for you. covered women will do anything to look like me, even if they know deep down they cannot. >> from now on i'm making my own hair, making my own hair grow out. >> lincoln freed me 40 years back. >> that's why i'm paid. >> that's why you're may favorite daughter in law. >> let's talk about here. the putt us down, make us feel ugly, wonderful hair leads to wonderful opportunities. >> a whole line of products,
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which is why i want to open up my own factory. >> we live in a mans world. >> i didn't come here to make sandwiches, i came here to do business. >> where are you going to do now sir? >> don't let nobody steal your dream, mama. >> we need a plan b. >> we've all made sacrifices. you are going to do what's best for this family. >> harris beauty. harris power. >> sarah, how big do want to be? >> big, rockefeller -- and put together. >> we have got to work harder. and dream beg.
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♪ ♪ ♪ >> terrific. so how do we get to this point? i know you and i have talked before, you have been approached about doing a movie about her life. and how did this come about? why did other ones fizzle, and this one takeoff? >> it's a typical hollywood story. it takes a while. really the very first nibble on this was in the early eighties, alex haley wanted to do a mini series. he was still riding the crest of route. alex died in 1992 without doing it. but in the process, i met his editor, lisa drew, and lisa acquired my book on her own ground. and that is the book that ultimately became the inspiration for self made. in the meantime, in those 20 years since the book was
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published there were two other possibilities that puzzled. finally, in 2015 i was approached by mike holder, of wonder, street we four years later have a series made. >> terrific. four years. what was the role in the process that you gave them the amazing story but in terms of developing the script, are you in the forefront? the background? saying yes, no. how does that work? >> i was not as much involved in creating the narrative as i really wanted to be and as i thought i would be. but my book was really the foundation of the research. and i had script reviews. so i reviewed the scripts as the story was being developed, and made some suggestions. some of my suggestions were incorporated, and some of them were not incorporated, so it
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was really creative license on the part of the script writer. >> i see. we will probably touch on that a little bit more. so four years from the concept to the release last month, a couple of weeks ago, >> so in those four years, a tablespoons or came on board which was extremely thrilling to me. when marking christine hold her, head shed lunch with, me she said she wanted to not be the lead back, but producer, i had never met lebron james. his company was involved. but having octaviano spencer in that lead role is really incredible. and you know, having blair underwood play tbs spencer's love interest didn't make a lot of people happy. but i will also say that one of the things that meant the most to me is that he reached out to
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me during the early part of the film me to do research, and to try to dig deeper on c.j. walker. so that was great, to know that he cared enough about the character that he wanted to play. >> that's great. now we have a clip of activity at spencer. i think it's probably one of the iconic scenes of the series. so let's play that. >> i had a keen versus able relationship with my half. to some of you do as well? i was born free. two years after emancipation. married at 14, we don't buy 20. i had to fend for myself and my baby girl. the only work that i could find was in the field. as a washing woman. didn't have time to take care of my hair. i know you note i mean.
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hard work on the farm. ain't it? >> i want to work at the hotel but they say i don't have the right we're -- look. >> how many of you know what she is talking about? pakistan, don't give us nothing, tell us we're, ugly make us feel ugly. i tell you what, if you come to my salon i will do your hair for free. >> you've got yourself a deal. >> that is great. do you have other sort of paper scenes that sink up? i'm supposing in the script that you did not hand over one of the records, and say this is what she said in the market that day. are the some scene that really resonate with you knowing the history so internally? >> that is one of my favorite scenes. in part because it shows how she empowered other women, and how part of her strength i think is that when she was still a poor washer women like
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those that she's talking to the woman in her church in st. louis really begin to give this poor sarah a vision of herself as something other than illiterate washing woman. she walked in the steps and the shoes of those women. i love seeing that. i love seeing the array of faces and hairstyles and clothes. i really think that they nailed it with that particular scene. i've visited the scene in toronto, everything was shot in toronto, maine davis did a lot of queen sugar. people may know learning from that. to scenes in particular. one was a scene with kevin carroll, who is playing the attorney. the scene centers around the lynching theme, and that was extremely emotional, and really strong, and there is another scene where sara, c.j. walker, in a hotel room, i don't want
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to do any spoilers but that was quite an emotional scene as well. it was just a joy to be able to watch these great actors do their thing. >> but about the rest of the cast? did you have any role in that? we might get into a conversation about this, color in the casting. >> the script writer and a show runner is really want to lean and on the colorism thing but that is actually quite controversial. a lot of people really, didn't they thought it went overboard. and i would not have done quite as much of it. in fact, madame walker in real life had arrival, his name was andy malone, and this character, the composite character in the film was eddie monroe. a lot of people wondered if that was a must be andy malone. in real life, the women were about the same complexion so the script writers used a lot
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of creative license to dive into the color something. this was not something that i would have done. a lot of people love garrett force, i remember him from saturday night live, people who are too young to have seen him would have seen clips. so that's a great character. in real life, i never found anything about c.j. walker's father, but it was still interesting way to sort of talk about slavery. and then there is another character, people see at the bottom, sweetness played by bill. that is also a character who did not exist in real life. kevin carroll is on the center on the bottom row. he was a really, really strong actor who has done a lot of broadway. this is interesting cast. a all-star cast. >> so your onset a couple of
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times. any behind the scenes tidbits before we get to the q&a that you want to share? >> i will say it was lovely to be there. one of the things that i love about the series is the, wigs -- the wigs, people don't realize, i have seen so many bad afro wigs in films, that this was really great to see the beauty of the hairstyles. and you can see in many ways, sarah's journey from a woman whose hair was falling out and who had the hair problems to the amazing hairstyles. so that was great fun for me to meet the people who are created those wigs and we're doing the hair. especially because, you know, i grew up a family where both of my parents worked in the hair care business. so this is something i've known
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from a child. >> anybody that knows you, depending on the day of the week or the event, you will show up with fantastic hair every time. i think our member, the first time in that you are the second, time your hair was completely different, i thought i was meeting somebody else. so it's always very impressive. so before we get to the questions, i have one that's coming across several times that i thought would give you a softball i'm sure. but i know you want to touch on the accuracy, which we've talked about a couple, things where there -- i know some of the reviews have brought out different elements of it. you've touched on it. but is there more you want to say on that? >> we'll see what kinds of questions people, have but the thing i think has been a real learning experience for me is that you can, right in my case, a 293-page nonfiction biography
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that's been researched for 20 years and you know that everything cannot go into 4:45 minute segments. and i think this happens a lot of times. the awards that we've given at the national archives and our records of achievement, we have honored people like stephen spielberg and tom hanks who have done hollywood versions of history that help people really learn history, who might not sit down and read a book. it gets people into that tend to pay attention and you hope that they will dig more deeply. so this is a hollywood version, octaviano spencer and her courage and tenacity and shows how to build a business, but it's not a history lesson. >> fair enough. and i think, great quote from that evening, was that he shot the birth, he was never going to give up that rhyme, even though it's completely historically inaccurate. so sometimes you don't let a
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good story again in the way. >> so the first question which i think has come several times, does she really steal the formula? >> oh god, so it's complicated. the formula had been around for centuries. it's in medical textbooks, pharmacists, it was really very simple at a time when many people didn't have indoor plumbing. people didn't watch their hair very often, they had really bad dandruff and i will go into details, but it was essentially vaseline with sulfur, so the formula had been around for a long time. sarah loves brothers for barbers, so she learned something about hair care from them. she did sell andy malone's products for a while and then when she moved from st. louis to denver, she was a cook for pharmacists who helped her also makes up her own formula. so it's complicated. >> and by no means i assume that she was the only one with some sort of hair care product. she just made it obviously --
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>> because the andy malone madam walker rivalry has really deep and, there were people before either of them who are breaking excellent products, cuticle is actually a very similar thing that had been around since the 18 eighties. a madam walker really stands out in part because she was such a great marketer. and because she knew how to train women and to power women. and i think over a period of time here, their hair products in a way became a means to one end. but she started having her conventions, her first convention in 1917, she had brought 200 women together and she was saying to them, not only do i want you to sell hair care products, but i want you to use part of that money as philanthropist to better your community, to be politically active and at the end of their convention, they sent a telegram to president woodrow woods and urging him to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime. and that's in the national archives.
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excellent, excellent. let me get to some of the other questions here. did the first house really burn as was shown in the series? >> no, that was hollywood melodrama. >> okay. can you tell us about the huge factory complex? >> so she owned a factory in indianapolis and it was really, she bought a house in indianapolis and behind the house was a stable and a warehouse. it used her the hustle, on into a factory, so wasn't the kind of complex that people saw in south made. and then she opened an office in new york and a beauty school, a beauty salon there. and then she began to acquire property in indianapolis before she died in 1919 and in 1927, a beautiful block long flat iron building was built in indianapolis with the factory
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in the theater in the corporate offices and the ballroom and the beauty salon and the drugstore and that building is still standing and it's a national historic landmark all the madam awkward legacy center. >> that's wonderful. i encourage people to send us their questions to the national archives foundation and the chat, i've got a few more here. how much do you know of madam walker siblings? >> so she had five siblings. her older siblings were all enslaved. they were with their parents on the bernie plantation and delta louisiana and her brothers, interesting lee for me, her older brothers were moved from delta louisiana to st. louis in the late 18 seventies and they were part of what was called the -- movement. it was one of the first major movements of african americans, their family minister, curtis
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pollard, had been a state senator, so during reconstruction, 90% of their parish was black, that meant there were a lot of black elected officials. and he was chased out of medicine perish by the ku klux klan in 1879 and her brothers followed him to st. louis. again, records third or in the library of congress and the national archives so i was really able to rely on those senate hearings about that exit this movement in order to tell their story. once they got to st. louis, they joined st. paul immaturity which had a history of taking in recent migrants and then they learned how to be gardeners -- barbers. >> that's a good segue to this question. what surprised do you or amazed you the most in your research? >> so, just like other people who are my age who had heard of madam walker, we knew she started her career company and
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that was kind of the whole story. but as i began to do research about her, i discovered that she was an international entrepreneur, she was a pioneer in the modern hair care industry. but that she had been, when she had some influence, she use that influence as a philanthropist and as a really outspoken political activist. speaking out on behalf of black soldiers during world war i, participating in the naacp's anti-lynching movement. and again, i keep coming back to records of the national archives and college park, there are some classified materials from world war i. she was actually, she and ida b. wells, who is just posthumously awarded the pulitzer prize yesterday, they were spied upon by a black spy for the war department and they were called in negro submersible's, because of their political militancy, which made me love her even more.
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>> i bet. so, getting to this idea of truth or friction, the tense scene between madam walker and booker ty washington. hollywood or is there something? there >> yeah, mostly hollywood. i mean, in fact madam occur and booker ty washington did get off to a rocky start. so there's a real drama there. real life trauma. he was the most powerful black man in america and she wanted his endorsements or she invented his conference but it was a little different from, or a lot different from what you see in the film. she went to his tuskegee campus uninvited and kind of trump her win and then she appeared at his 1912 astral negro business league convention. and she had just contributed 1000 dollars to the building fund of a ymca in indianapolis, she knew who was. he had met her before. but when she got to the conference, she was ready to
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speak and he said no. but it's different from where you see in the film. and i think, i like the reality more because she waited until that last day of the convention, when he didn't give her an opportunity to speak and she stood up and gave a great speech, saying i'm a woman who came from the cotton fields of the south. and i have built my own factory on my own ground. so that conversation behind the scenes never happened when he's telling her, women should not be on in front of men. and in fact, would i think it's a lovely resolution is that when he came to indianapolis for the dedication ceremony to be the keynote speaker at the ymca, madame workers set her chauffeur to the train station to pick him up and he was a guest in her home. so by the time he died in 1915, they were friends. >> speaking of famous people, what about rockefeller component? >> you know, that's a great hollywood story. that line, i want to be bigger
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than ford carnegie and rockefeller put together, that's a great hollywood line and a quotable line. but, you know, that didn't happen. in fact, madame walker's estate is in irving, tin in west chester county and rockefeller's beautiful estate is about five miles away. they never met in real life and she didn't walk over to his estate while he was ski shooting or pain coca, whatever. but no, that they're really happen. but it is a way to show that she was asserting herself by building a home in west chester county and one of the wealthiest communities in america. >> it is your family owned a walker building in indianapolis? so the >> so the matter marker legacy centers a nonprofit center. it was the headquarters for the company and then it became a nonprofit entity in the earlier
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years. >> so at the time, how are she portrayed in the media and the press? >> the black press wrote about her every week. and she was really very smart, again in her marketing and in developing relationships with publishers and editors so she advertised a lot in the black press and some of the publisher said that she helped keep them in business. so she was very favourably covered. and then there were white newspapers who wrote about her. and she built her mansion in irving tin new york, she was in the sunday new york times magazine. but there were some sort of racial slurs. it was the word press that really couldn't get its mind around this successful women. so now you see the new york times as rewriting there's a betrayers of people who were neglected, she actually had an obituary, but i would love to see about the racial slurs
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within the headline. >> that leads us to a couple of family questions here by research. i'll give you two. which he close with her brothers? any can you talk a little bit about her adopted daughters? >> she was very close with her brothers, especially the oldest one, alexander who really seem to be the leader of the family. but her brother died within a quick succession within about six years of each other. so, that really upended her life and kind of left her adrift, though there were other people to whom she had become close, women who were her friends and her mentors. but yes, she had been close to her brothers when they were still living, but the loss of her brothers had a big impact on her. the story of madam walker, her daughter, her only child was married three times. and that's another story line
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in the film, there's a real life trauma because she had to boyfriends and that was relive drawn between mother and daughter. both were doctors, both were handsome, better marketed interest one and she adored the other one and of course, our daughter, like the one she did interest better. it was typical story. but she was married three times and had no biological children. but when madam sarah and lilia when st. louis at st. paul amy, they had become very friendly with many people but among them was a man whose name was hammond. and when they move to indianapolis, when madam moved indianapolis, coincidentally, his mother lived across the street from them. and one of her daughters who lived nearby in -- had a daughter whose husband had just five and those were the people of my grandmother. may so may with somebody who
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was a good student on the honorable, but from a poor family and she started running errands and being a model and traveling around. so they persuaded her mother to allow them to legally adopt here with the promise that they would educator so they in fact spellman is mentioned in and of film if you want to spellman and she became president of the company. and you mentioned before -- >> you mentioned before that she was spied on, militant are for a role, did you have a role in the suffragist movement? >> some role. she wasn't a member, as far as i could tell of any of the national organizations, but she did host meanings of suffragists in indianapolis. she had one of the friends of one of friends daughters named carrie burns was really involved in the suffrage movement in indiana and had founded the black women's chapter of the indian
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suffragist organization. and madame walker hosted meetings of those suffragists in her home. >> what about her products internationally? are they well-known? >> her products were sold in the caribbean and southern america. in 1913 she traveled to haiti, jamaica, costa rica, amelia, her daughter traveled to panama and 1818 to try to expand the company and then there were students who came to the walker beauty school, in indianapolis, from liberia and ghana. so there was a international component of the product. coincidentally, the mc w. line of hair care products available, the founder of sun line dance was from, liberia rich, when he
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came to the united states in the 19 eighties he had already heard of that a marker and later on acquired the trademark and now makes the mcjw products. >> were you in touch with any of the woman who sold her products? are there gatherings? is there a email group? text group? >> you know, fortunately i'm attach. there's a group called the beauty cultural league which had its 100th anniversary last year. i spoke at their convention. members of their group were the members who really rallied in 1988 to help me get the walker stamp. so the graduates of the walker beauty school, there are only a few of them left but they have always been star wars and real supporters of anything that i do with madam walker. >> excellent. so last i have a geography
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question for you. is -- in minneapolis named for freeman a ransom? >> absolutely. for people who know minneapolis, if you know the walker legacy center and what was the black neighborhood at the turn of the last century on indiana avenue, there was a neighborhood behind that was absolutely named for freedoms attorney and longtime general manager. >> i am going to finish up with one question for you for those of you who have tuned in today, what's the take away besides truth and fiction from hollywood and making sure that they get a copy of your book? >> what should they be inspired by and take from adam c.j. walker's legacy and her story? >> you know what i hope that people will remember from madam walkers that she was a woman who overcame tremendous odds. we are in a very challenging
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time right now. to be able to be inspired by someone like that. and to see her courage, tenacity, and i think really importantly that she empowered other woman. either people had pushed her forward and she wanted to do that for other women. as she was becoming wealthy and certainly after she was wealthy she really wanted to use her money to make a difference as a patron of the arts and as a person who provided scholarships, and who was involved in political issues. >> terrific. those of you on the line if you want to give a round of applause. round of applause. thank you. this has been wonderful.
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on thursday facebook see how, mark sucker, bergh google ceo, jack dorsey, testify on combatting misinformation before a unlimited fiction and disinformation subcommittee. online at or listen on the free c-span radio app. here 2018 was the centennial year of us participation in world war one and american 2018 was the centennial year of u.s. participation in world war i. american history tv marked the anniversary with a variety of programs. on american artifacts we visited


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