Affluence and Community at the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company
*This post is part of our online forum on Madam C.J. Walker for the centennial anniversary of her death.
In July 1911, The Indianapolis Star reported that the “beautiful and recently remodeled home of Mr. and Mrs. C J Walker on North West Street was thrown open to their friends Tuesday evening for a housewarming. One hundred and fifty persons attended. The house was decorated with palms and cut flowers. Music was furnished by a harpist.” During Madam C. J. Walker’s nearly six-year residence at 640 North West Street, she filled her home with the trappings of affluence and hosted many more events confirming her wealth. Many observers focused on the riches Walker’s work had produced. For instance, in July 1913 The Freeman’s William M. Lewis interviewed Booker T. Washington at Madam Walker’s home, where Washington was staying during a visit to dedicate the new Colored YMCA. Lewis reported that he met Washington “in the best of those splendid rooms of Madame’s mansion. It is not overstated when I say that for elegance, comfort, convenience his lodging place could not be surpassed.”
Observers captivated by Walker’s affluence risked ignoring the firm’s origins among working-class African American women who had a distinctive vision of wealth, opportunity, and philanthropy. Walker’s home sat in the midst of a segregated neighborhood that included many families of modest means, and Walker had substantive personal links to those neighbors: some of those women would go to work at Walker’s Indianapolis factory, others would become Walker agents, and many more were dedicated Walker company consumers. Walker’s stay in Indianapolis was relatively short. She moved into class-exclusive neighborhoods in New York, but her company’s Indianapolis work force would be dominated by women with working-class roots. Many of them definitely had bourgeois social and educational ambitions, and Walker’s firm provided a rare, if not unique, opportunity for those employees. In perhaps Walker’s most famous public address underscoring her business ethic, she told the 1912 National Negro Business League convention that “I have built my own factory on my own ground, 38 by 208 feet. I employ in that factory seven people, including a bookkeeper, a stenographer, a cook and a house girl. I own my own automobile and runabout…Now my object in life is not simply to make money for myself or to spend it on myself in dressing or running around in an automobile. But I love to use a part of what I make in trying to help others.” Walker’s vision of her business consciously embraced wealth, philanthropy, and women’s agency alike, and long after she moved from Indianapolis in 1916 and died three years later, her firm would be managed by many of those women.
Perhaps one of the most interesting of those relationships was between Walker and Parthenia Rollins. Rollins was born in Kentucky around 1850, where she was the captive of Edward B. DuVall, who began to manage a farm north of Lexington in about 1854. Rollins lived in Kentucky four decades after Emancipation, eventually moving to Indianapolis around 1908 with a daughter, son, and grandson. Rollins likely met Madam Walker soon after Walker and husband C. J. moved into the North West Street home around April 1910, and when Madam Walker rose at the 1912 National Negro Business League convention to refer to the cook she employed, she probably was referring to Rollins. In 1979 Walker Company Secretary Violet Davis Reynolds remembered that “Parthenia Rollins of Hopkinsville, Ky., was housekeeper for Madam, and she made special pastries and wonderful Dixie (yeast) biscuits for guests. I can still taste those biscuits with homemade butter.”1 Rollins would work for Madam Walker until Walker left Indianapolis in 1916, and around the same year, Rollins’s family moved into a newly built home on a property Walker had purchased several years before at 810 Camp Street. The fourth item in Walker’s will stipulated that “Parthenia Rawlins [sic] be paid five dollars a week for the rest of her natural life, and that sufficient money be set aside for her burial and funeral expenses.” Parthenia Rollins, her daughter, and her grandson were still living on Camp Street in December 1937 when Rollins was one of 21 Indianapolis residents interviewed for the Federal Writers Project Slave Narratives. Rollins died in October 1952, when the Indianapolis Recorder placed her age at 107 and indicated she “lived in her native Kentucky during the Civil War and remembered many stirring events of the war. She had heard Abraham Lincoln speak on several occasions.”
Walker’s most prominent philanthropic causes included Indianapolis’s Alpha Home. The Alpha Home Association formed in 1886 “for the purpose of providing a home for indigent and aged colored women,” especially elderly women who had survived captivity. Walker donated substantial support as well as more modest gifts, such as the home’s 1915 Thanksgiving dinner. In April 1914, Madam Walker held a birthday party for her daughter A’Lelia at the Knights of Pythias Hall, and the Indianapolis Recorder (1914) focused on the theatrical affluence of the event that “has at no time in the social history of Indianapolis colored people had a rival…Madame Walker wore an exquisite gown of cream maltese lace fashioned over white charmeuse with maline and chiffon trimming. Her jewels were diamonds.” Yet the newspaper acknowledged that “Madame Walker also had as her special guests the old ladies from Alpha Home, that they might enjoy the program.” The residents had just moved to a new location in April, and in December 1915, the Indianapolis Recorder reported on a Walker benefit for the home, indicating that it “is Madam Walker’s desire to see the entire indebtedness paid on Alpha Home before leaving the city. With the assistance of the Board of Managers, she is making an effort to have this entertainment the biggest affair ever given in Indianapolis…Madam Walker will give her famous Western Lecture, `The Negro Woman in Business,’ accompanied with stereopticon views of her business and property holding, which inspired and electrified thousands in the West and Northwest to higher aims and greater efforts.” Those “higher aims” revolved around philanthropically situating the company in the community and honoring the experiences of women like Parthenia Rollins and the women at the Alpha Home. Walker moved out of Indianapolis shortly after the Alpha Home fundraiser, but Walker’s will left Alpha Home $1000 in 1919.
Elizabeth Brooks and her daughter Marie were typical of the many women who worked for the Walker Company. Elizabeth Bailey Brooks was born in Knightstown, Indiana in 1878, and she and her husband had their only child, daughter Marie, in 1899. The family was living in Marion, Indiana when Frank died in 1915, and in 1917 or early 1918, daughter Marie applied for and was initially awarded a civil service position in Washington. However, the position required Brooks to send a picture of herself, and after the picture reached Washington and confirmed she was African American, the offer was withdrawn. Walker Company managers somehow became aware of the case and offered Marie Brooks a position as a bookkeeper. Brooks initially rebuffed the offer, arguing that she could not move from Marion without her mother. The firm offered the mother a position as well, and it would often recite this story to underscore the company’s commitment to the community. Elizabeth Brooks worked for the Walker Company until her death in 1952, and Marie Brooks Overstreet retired from the company in 1967 with almost a half-century experience at the firm.
Violet Davis Reynolds began to work as a stenographer for Walker in 1914, remaining with the firm 68 years before her retirement as the firm’s Executive Director in 1982. In 1979, Reynolds emphasized “her mentor’s ability to surround herself with knowledgeable people and ask their advice.”2 Indeed, while many observers have focused on Walker’s skill at accumulating capital, her eye for talented women with ambition and commitment to the firm’s place in the community was perhaps more distinctive than the company’s enormous profits.