BLACK WOMEN’S PHILANTHROPY DURING JIM CROW
When the biography of a Black female millionaire dropped on my desk, I tilted my head. “It’s too distant a subject for someone locked up,” I said to myself.
The subject was Madam C.J. Walker. All I knew was she got rich selling hair products to Black people. I didn’t know that she did this during the Jim Crow era. I didn’t know that she began a national chain of beauty schools that were a major source of vocational education for Black women. I also didn’t know how she struggled against male dominance, even from prominent Black men such as W.E.B. Dubois and leaders of the Black press.
I became more interested in Walker’s story while sitting on my bunk on a Saturday morning. A commercial touted the newest Barbie doll—Madam C.J. Walker. That put a smile on my face as I picked up Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving—Black Women’s Philanthropy during Jim Crow (2020), by Tyrone McKinley Freeman.
Walker’s story “highlights how giving shaped [her] life before and after she became wealthy. Poor and widowed when she arrived in St. Louis in her twenties, Walker found mentorship among black churchgoers and working black women. Her adoption of faith, racial uplift, education and self-help soon informed her dedication to assisting black women’s entrepreneurship, financial independence, and activism,” the back cover reads.
That resonated with me as an oppressed incarcerated person and as someone who uses kindness to navigate within my peer set.
What surprised me about Walker’s story are the many times she stood up to male dominance as well as her refusal to adhere to a “woman’s place.”
An example of Walker’s willingness to stand up to power happened Aug. 13, 1912. The wealthy 45-year-old Walker literally took the stage away from Booker T. Washington to tell an audience of approximately 2,000 about her early struggles, the legitimacy of the beauty-culture industry, the size of her business, and about her staff and accomplishments. The crowd interrupted her speech “with great applause,” Freeman notes. Nevertheless, Walker drew even greater applause when she advocated building “a Tuskegee Institute in Africa.”
Walker felt that economic independence for Black people depended on education. So, she launched beauty schools across America in spite of Jim Crow’s influence in government, business and philanthropy.
She pursued her ambitions in spite of U.S. history showing that the three entities overlap, “resulting in a blurring of the lines between them.” For Black people, however, “the notion of three separate sectors has not always worked well because oppression has been pervasive and the three sectors have colluded in that oppression,” Freeman concluded from his extensive research.
Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving is a biography of a woman whose modern-time counterpart could be Oprah Winfrey. But Oprah’s wealth and fame is in a different genre and her philanthropy come after she gained her wealth—yet, the systemic oppression that existed in Walker’s day continues. The evidence is in the outcomes of current government policies that show the gains by African Americans are marginal.
Freeman opened my eyes to a Black woman’s struggle with stories tied to vivid and authentic references. In the end, her biography will have a lasting effect on readers’ idea of right and wrong—in addition to the power of giving.