Name a rich, successful Black woman. Oprah Winfrey likely comes to mind first for a billion reasons. Did you know although she is the first black female billionaire, Oprah was not the first black female millionaire in U.S. history? Madam C.J. Walker claims that title.
Her commitment to building up the Black community through entrepreneurship, employment, and philanthropy provides an example of the free enterprise system and private giving at work—a needed reminder in light of today’s anti-capitalist social justice movement.
Before Oprah, Beyonce, Rihanna or even BET co-founder Sheila Johnson, there was Sarah Breedlove (later known as Madam C.J. Walker). Sarah was born in 1867 to former slaves and joined her family picking cotton as a sharecropper on the Louisiana plantation where her parents had been enslaved.
Poverty and a lack of access to education marked her childhood. Sarah became orphaned and married by age 14 hoping for a better life that did not materialize. She became a young mother, lost her first husband, and was abandoned by her second husband all before age 30.
Sarah’s ticket out of poverty began with her own hair loss. She eventually left back-breaking, meager-paying laundry work after using a hair-straightening product that restored her hair. She became the equivalent of a brand ambassador for this product, supplementing her laundry income as a sales agent.
Sarah relocated from the Midwest to Colorado and started her own hair care business in 1905 to meet the growing demand from the rising class of economically stable Blacks. Taking on her third husband’s name, she rebranded herself as Madam C.J. Walker and her business took off.
If ever there was a champion for women, and Black women specifically, at a time when they faced sexist oppression and brutal racial discrimination, it was Walker. In less than a decade, she built a haircare empire targeted to, featuring, and operated by Blacks. Denied loans from banks, Walker self-funded a state-of-art factory.
She opened salons to help women launch businesses, founded a network of beauty schools to train tens of thousands on her products and techniques, advertised her products in Black newspapers across the nation (sometimes keeping them afloat), and employed over 20,000 sales agents.
As she said in 1914, “I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself. I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.”
Walker also empowered women to achieve economic independence through entrepreneurship. Her ads promoted the opportunities her company offered: “Open your own shop; secure prosperity and freedom. Many women of all ages confronted with the problem of earning a livelihood have mastered the Walker System.”
Madam C.J. Walker freed many Black women from the prison of menial, low-paying work and provided credentialed educational opportunities despite legal limitations on education for Blacks.
Walker was not only concerned with the economic empowerment of Black women. She sought to uplift the Black community through philanthropy.
Even before she amassed wealth, Walker supported her local church, which came to her aid as a single mother. However, her fortune allowed Walker to scale her giving and expand it beyond just the church setting to Black-serving institutions throughout the Midwest and South.
She funded historically-Black educational institutions, giving thousands of dollars to Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, a teacher training school for Black students, and what would later become Bethune-Cookman University in Florida.
Walker built homes using Black labor and constructed workforce development and social service institutions—from a retirement facility for elderly African-American women to the YMCA of Indianapolis. She also supported African-American artists and musicians, hoping to elevate their national profiles.
Walker was active in public-policy philanthropy as well, donating a hefty sum at the time of $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching efforts. She would also lend her voice to national efforts from temperance to women’s suffrage to civil rights and equality for Blacks.
Her philanthropy was even felt through the gift baskets with food for the poor that filled her company’s office during the holidays. She noted, “I am not and never have been ‘close-fisted,’ for all who know me will tell you that I am a liberal-hearted woman.”
That “liberal-hearted” ethos continued even after her life ended with a $100,000 trust to support many causes, including some of those she previously donated to.
While Madam C.J. Walker’s philanthropy stands out today, she practiced a tradition of giving common within the Black community. The gospel and self-reliance went hand-in-hand in uplifting Blacks throughout American history. The Black church served the spiritual needs of Black souls and the economic, educational and social needs of their hands, minds and hearts.
Today, as some call for increased government funding to remedy discrimination of the past, we should not forget that during the darkest periods of our history, people like Madam C.J. Walker created opportunities for themselves and others while caring for society’s least able.
Economic freedom and philanthropy are still just as powerful today as they were in Madam C.J. Walker’s day. Walker’s encouraging words ring true: “I had to make my own living and my own opportunity! But I made it! That is why I want to say to every Negro woman present, don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”