By Jory Barrad, Director of Development & Communications, The Pathway School
Black History Month offers many opportunities to celebrate and learn more about important African American individuals, as well as significant historical events for Blacks in America. I was pleased to see a report by some Pathway Students last week about Madam C.J. Walker, a historically significant African American entrepreneur.
Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 on a cotton plantation in Louisiana, her parents were slaves who had been recently freed, and Sarah was the first in her family to be “free-born”. She became orphan at the age of six, went to live with an older sister, their family moved to Mississippi when Sarah was ten years old, and she then worked picking cotton on a plantation and doing housework. At the age of 14 she married her first husband, eventually had a daughter. Her husband died two years later, so she then moved with her daughter to St. Louis where she found work as a washerwoman. She attended public school at night and met her second husband, Charles J. Walker, who worked in advertising and would later be instrumental in helping her publicize her hair care products business.
Because of a scalp disorder she developed causing her to lose much of her hair, she experimented with home remedies and store-bought hair care treatments. After a stint working for another Black hair-care products entrepreneur, she went on to create her own line of products and her husband Charles suggested she market them under a more recognizable name, thus “Madam C.J. Walker” is how she became known from there on out. She grew her company, moved it to Indianapolis, hired and trained a team of sales beauticians who became known as the “Walker Agents”. From Biography.com: “A relentless innovator, Walker organized clubs and conventions for her representatives, which recognized not only successful sales, but also philanthropic and educational efforts among African Americans.”
What was, and still is, remarkable about Madam Walker was not only her ability to build and grow a successful business as a Black woman in America during the Jim Crow era, but also how she was committed to “racial uplift” and philanthropy, advocacy, and activism. She is recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in America. As she became more successful, and her wealth increased, her notoriety increased as well. She spoke at large annual gatherings including The National Negro Business League Convention and political and economic forums. According to author of Madam C. J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving and assistant professor Dr. Tyrone McKinley Freeman, Madam Walker “embedded her philanthropy in how she grew her business, forged alliances with groups like the National Association of Colored Women, funded schools and social service agencies led by African American women, and enlisted her company’s sales agents in local charity and advocacy work.” Before her death in 1919, Walker pledged $5,000 (the equivalent of about $77,700 in 2019) to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund. At the time, it was the largest gift from an individual that the NAACP had ever received. Walker bequeathed nearly $100,000 to orphanages, institutions, and individuals; her will directed two-thirds of future net profits of her estate to charity.
Madam Walker certainly set the bar high for women entrepreneurs and, particularly, African American Philanthropists of her time and her legacy lives on. If you would like to learn more about how you can leave a legacy through your own personal philanthropic activities, feel free to give me a call or drop me a line.
Director of Development & Communications