Madam C. J. Walker ranks among the greatest African-American philanthropists in the nation’s history. When she died in 1919, Walker was widely eulogized as the first woman to become a self-made millionaire. The assumption may not have been correct; the estimated value of her remaining estate at the time of her death was $600,000 (about $8 million in today’s dollars). Nonetheless, several generations of African Americans looked upon her as proof that dramatic economic success was possible for blacks as well as whites.
Born in 1867 as Sarah Breedlove, her first years were spent on the Louisiana plantation where her family had worked as slaves. She was the first in her family to be born free. Her parents died when she was a young child, leaving her to live with her sister. Ill treatment by her cruel brother-in-law motivated 14-year-old Sarah to leave the household and marry Moses McWilliams. Seven years later McWilliams died, and Sarah and her three-year-old daughter Lelia moved to St. Louis, where three of her brothers lived.
She took up work as a washerwoman. She remarried in 1894, and soon found herself supporting a drunkenly abusive and openly unfaithful husband. Determined to provide her daughter with a better life, she managed to send Lelia to Knoxville College in Tennessee. In 1903, she left her husband and took a job as a sales agent for Annie Pope-Turnbo, a St. Louis businesswoman who produced products that claimed to stimulate hair growth.
After two years, Sarah moved to Colorado to be closer to her sister-in-law and four nieces. She was followed by Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper ad salesman from St. Louis, whom she married a few months later. In Denver, she was Pope-Turnbo’s only sales agent, but her success suggested that she might begin selling hair products of her own.
She decided to begin her own line of hair-care products, created specifically for African-American women. From her travels, she knew there was a national market; from her time in Denver, she knew she needed to relocate her budding business. The Walkers spent over a year travelling through the South, building the foundations of a mail-order business, before deciding to set up shop in Pittsburgh. By 1908, she had trained hundreds of sales agents. A visit to Indianapolis in 1910 convinced the Walkers that it would be a good location for a more permanent headquarters.
An Indianapolis campaign to build a new Young Men’s Christian Association recreation facility in a black neighborhood provided her first opportunity for public philanthropy. She explained her $1,000 gift saying, “If the association can save our boys, our girls will be saved, and that’s what I am interested in.” As her reputation for generosity grew, Walker was increasingly inundated with requests for help. Initially inclined to help individuals who showed a desire for self-improvement, the focus of her charitable giving gradually shifted away from individuals (due to a series of bad experiences) and toward organizations and causes instead.
In 1910, she created the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company of Indiana, putting up the necessary capital herself. (She had adopted “Madam” as a first name, to preclude being called “Auntie” by whites.) Walker traveled extensively, going as far as the Caribbean and Central America, to increase the distribution of her products and to train new agents. In 1916, she created the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, staffed by agents of her company, arguing that the beneficial publicity that flowed from charitable work was good for business.
Walker was quite devoted to improving the lives of African Americans. She was a major funder of anti-lynching programs run by the NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women. She led the effort to preserve the home of Frederick Douglass in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D. C. Walker refused to take sides on the deep divide between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. duBois on the best strategies for African-American progress. She was willing to ally herself with anyone whose work was meant to “advance the race.”
In 1916, Walker moved to New York to be closer to her daughter Lelia. Deciding that she needed a house of her own, she bought 4.5 acres in Irvington-on-Hudson and built a mansion at a cost of $100,000. When she was diagnosed with hypertension and nephritis in 1917, Walker was advised to curtail her activities. Instead, she accelerated her speaking schedule, until illness made travel physically impossible.
Even with her health failing, Walker joined a delegation of Harlem leaders who went to Washington, D. C. There they argued that black Americans who volunteered to fight in the First World War ought to be accorded full civil rights at the conclusion of hostilities. In August 1918, she convened a conference at her home, during which she stressed the need for unity in the pursuit of high principles, and the necessity of loyalty both “to country” and “to the soldiers fighting for democracy.”
When she passed away on May 25, 1919, she left the bulk of her estate to charity. The majority of the institutions specifically named were educational, including (among others) the Tuskegee Institute, the Manassas Industrial School, and the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute. She also included the St. Paul’s Mite Missionary Society and the YMCAs and YWCAs of Louisville and St. Louis.
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South,” summarized Walker in a speech to the National Negro Business League Convention a few years before her death. “From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing. . . . I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
“I am in the business world, not for myself alone,” she told Booker T. Washington in 1912, “but to do all the good I can for the uplift of my race.” She worked toward that goal not only through her philanthropic activity, but by giving thousands of African-American women well-paying and dignified jobs as commissioned sales agents. As the New York Post acknowledged following her death, Walker’s rags-to-riches life demonstrated that the American dream of personal success—and then sharing that success with one’s fellows—applied to blacks as well as whites, and that talented and generous citizens of any color “may rise to the most distinctive heights of American achievement.”
- Beverly Lowry, Her Dream of Dreams: The Rise and Triumph of Madam C. J. Walker (Vintage Books, 2003)
- A’Lelia Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Washington Square Press, 2001)