Krista: I had heard the name "Madame C.J. Walker" before but the first time I saw anyone highlight her was when a class in women's studies used Naomi Wolfe's Fire With Fire for a course. Though I've learned a great deal more since, I thought Wolfe gave a pretty good starting point so I would like to highlight what Wolfe wrote on pages 165 and 166:
Sarah Breedlove, or Madame C.J. Walker, the poor daughter of former slaves, was born on a cotton plantation in Delta, Louisiana. She spent her early adulthood as a washerwoman, and later as a cook. When she was thirty-seven, she had a dream, she said, in which the formula for a hair perparation to nourish black hair was revealed to her. She manufactured the mixture for her friends, and soon was marketing her products in the community, providing free demonstrations. Her sales swelled and she discovered a talent for marketing and distribution; soon she was training more than a thousand black women to start their own franchises. At the beginnin of the twentieth century, few black women earned more than $1.50 per week. But her agents, said Breedlove, could find the independence and upward mobility that the few occupations open to African-American women denied them: "I have made it possible . . . for many colored women to abandon the washtub for more pleasant and profitable occupation."
But by the time she reached middle age with her chosen name, she was one of the wealthiest women, black or white, in the country. And she was committed to advancing opportunities for other women. In 1990, when she was invited to address Booker T. Washington's National Negro Business League, the businessmen onstage deliberately overlooked her. She stood and spoke. "Surely," she said, "you are not going to shut the door in my face. I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. . . . I was promoted from there to the washtbu. Then I was promoted to the cook kitchen. Then I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground." The men gave the speaker their attention.
As Walker grew ever more successful, she used her power increasingly to return power to the women she employed. She encouraged her agents to become community leaders, and then taught them to become lobbyists. She formed a national organization for her agents and in her speech to it, "Women's Duty to Women," praised them and urged them to remember their responsibility to use their success for other women's advancement. "I want to show that Walker agents are doing more than making for themselves." . . .
She urged her agents to tithe their profits to charity: "We are anxious to help all humanity, the poor as well as the rich, especially those of our race." Though she built herself a palatial home, she also, whenever possible, invested her money in the black community. "By giving my work to colored men," she said of a group of houses she built for Indianapolis's black citizens, "they are thus able to employ others and, if not directly, indirectly I am contributing more jobs for our boys and girls." At the height of her power, Walker travled to the White House to urge President Woodrow Wilson to make lynching a federal crime. When she died, thousands of dollars of her fortune went to support the antilynching work of the NAACP.
A lot of times, we hear names tossed out and never really get to have an idea of the person behind the name. A teacher might say, "And there's the great George Washington Carver," show a drawing and that's apparently all the time there is for Black History Month because now it's time to move onto a new assignment.
And the two times I heard of Madame C.J. Walker, she was highlighted in my public shool in that way. I never knew anything about her other than she was an African-America, enough of a name that she should be mentioned, and that having said her name, the teacher was now ready to move on to another topic.
Reading Wolfe's writing on Madame C.J. Walker, I was really angry because Wolfe gave us this picture of a woman who'd lived and accomplished but in class that was apparently just supposed to be implied because we'd spent maybe thirty second on her.
There are not a great deal of books on Walker, but the one I enjoyed most was On Her Own Ground : The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker. It's by A'Lelia Bundles and it's available at Amazon.com and maybe at your libraries too. So if anything from Wolfe's book caught your attention and made you want to read more, I'd recommend you seek out Bundles book. But I hope most of all that if you were only given the name and shown a drawing, you now have a better sense of what an amazing woman Madame C.J. Walker was.