The Collectivist Roots of Madam C. J. Walker’s Philanthropy

*This post is part of our online forum on Madam C.J. Walker for the centennial anniversary of her death. 

The Terrace at Madam C.J. Walker’s Villa Lewaro, 1924, (Permission: Madam Walker Family Archive)

Madam C. J. Walker’s philanthropy is typically presented as having started with her 1911 pledge of $1,000 to the Colored YMCA of Indianapolis and culminated with the charitable provisions of her estate finalized weeks before her death in 1919. These gifts have intrigued the intellectual curiosity of scholars, captured the imagination of the public, and stolen the hearts of storytellers across generations; however, Walker’s generosity began earlier when she was a poor migrant in St. Louis and included many lesser-known gifts. The celebrated gifts, despite their boldness, do not demonstrate the depth and breadth of giving across Walker’s nearly 52 years of life, nor their origins. As the woman called the “first self-made female millionaire,” she made many gifts as an individual, but they all had their origins in Black women’s traditions of collective giving.Within one year of the New York Times Magazine’s 1917 reporting on Walker’s wealth, the “self-made” title took over, officially stamping her place in history. Over Walker’s own objections, the moniker quickly adhered and has defined her for generations. While the problematic label honors her entrepreneurial prowess and hints at her charitable nature, it has had the unfortunate effect of distancing her from many of her peers, particularly when it comes to philanthropic giving. Before and after becoming wealthy, Walker was a radically generous woman, active on multiple fronts—lynching, temperance, education, social services, and migrant relief, to name a few. But, to the extent that this label causes us to separate her from her foremothers and peers, who were generous even though they tended to have fewer financial resources, it belies the many traditions of Black women’s collective giving out of which she came and that continue today. In particular, there are the traditions of Black washerwomen, churchwomen, clubwomen, and fraternal women.

Before becoming the millionaire entrepreneur, Walker was first and foremost a washerwoman. She often spoke of the importance of this identity in her life, saying in 1917, “I was considered a good washerwoman and laundress. I am proud of that fact.”1 The orphaned Sarah Breedlove began working as a laundress in her early teens while living under the care of her older married sister, Louvenia, in Vicksburg, Mississippi during the late 1870s. The Reconstruction regime was being dismantled and the early murmurings of what would become Jim Crow were emerging. Washerwomen not only collaborated in their daily back-breaking laundry work, they were known in their communities for their generosity. Financially independent, they were breadwinners for their families while maintaining a community focus. The great historian Carter G. Woodson described them as being significant supporters of charity and investors in Black business startups. Historian Tera Hunter thoroughly outlined their activist stance and uplift activities by organizing themselves into Washing Societies in the late 1800s to demand fair treatment by clients and local governments. Sarah worked as a washerwoman into the 1890s while living in St. Louis, prior to her transition into beauty culture. As a result, Walker’s later public generosity came as no surprise because she emerged from washerwomen’s penchant for giving and sharing. Later, in 1995, Osceola McCarty, a Black laundress, reminded us of this tradition when she gave an unexpected gift of $150,000—the result of years of saving—to Ole Miss, extending it forward into a new era.

As a devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Walker was also a churchwoman. Having converted from her family’s Baptist roots, Sarah embraced the AME Church upon her arrival in St. Louis in the 1890s and remained a lifelong member. She and her 5-year-old daughter, A’Lelia, were settled in the city by St. Paul’s AME Church. The churchwomen of St. Paul’s embraced the pair and eased their integration into the community, so that it became their own. The St. Paul women ran ministries inside and outside of the church that addressed educational, social, and spiritual needs. Historian Bettye Collier-Thomas has emphasized that churchwomen’s missionary work was the “backbone of black community philanthropy.” Additionally, the flip side of churchwomen were clubwomen. It was not uncommon for the two to be one and the same. In the case of St. Paul’s, many of the churchwomen were members of not only the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), but also other local clubs. In fact, the connection was so strong that St. Paul’s hosted the 1904 NACW meeting. Sarah was a member of St. Paul’s at the time, but her class status positioned her as an object of NACW programming. Later, as Madam Walker, she would assume membership as a respectable race woman and join the NACW ranks, who collaborated and contributed resources to uplift their people, including her $500 contribution pooled with hundreds of others to complete the organization’s campaign to burn the mortgage of Frederick Douglass’s home in 1918.

While at St. Paul’s, Sarah was exposed to fraternal woman, as some church members were part of the Order of the Court of Calanthe, an auxiliary of the Colored Knights of Pythias. The Knights were founded in the 1880s in Vicksburg around the time Sarah lived there, and the Calanthes developed soon after. Like most fraternal and secret societies, the Calanthes had their own set of rituals and placed a priority on charity. In fact, members moved upward through the Calanthe’s three ritual degrees largely by completing collective projects. Walker achieved the organization’s highest ritual degree and was particularly active while living in Denver and later in Indianapolis. Fraternal women had a culture of mutuality and regularly pooled resources to achieve personal and social ends. From burial insurance, to sickness benefits, to charitable fundraisers, Calanthes were actively engaged and oriented towards both religious conceptions of charity and secular notions of racial uplift.

So while we tend to focus on Walker as an entrepreneur, it is important to remember that being a washerwoman, churchwoman, club woman, and fraternal woman were similarly important parts of her identity, and now legacy, which she embraced and proclaimed. These networks sustained Walker over time. As she moved from city to city, among the first places she would connect in her new locales were the local AME church and chapter of the Calanthes. These networks were not only physical and social spaces for connecting with others, they were purveyors of the “public culture” historian Martha S. Jones identified as having emerged in the 1830s and continued into the twentieth century that imparted, debated, and replicated values, ideas, and sensibilities about African Americans’ responsibilities towards each other and their place in the world, especially for Black women. In particular, the Calanthe rituals, the church hymns, the club anthems and recitations, and the washerwomen’s “consumption strategies” were parts of what scholar Imani Perry has called “black formalism.” These practices constituted the unique institutional character and group features of Black voluntary associations that nurtured Black civic identity and an ethos of mutuality that fueled the struggle for equality from generation to generation. And this ethos continues today.

As we contemplate Madam Walker’s philanthropic legacy 100 years after her death, we must note that the traditions of generosity and collective giving which she came out of and that she embodied find expression through traditional forms and new iterations. A recent study found that “in communities of color, single women are more likely to give than single men, and married couples are more likely than single[s]” to give, with wives playing major decision-making roles. Churchwomen remain the physical and financial backbone of the Black Church and its domestic and foreign missionary agendas. Black women are leading the social movement for Black Lives, the philanthropic movement for Black-led Social Change, and the international recognition of August as Black Philanthropy Month. Clubwomen, fraternal women, and sorority sisters still combine resources to meet community needs, as evidenced by Alpha Kappa Alpha’s recent announcement of a $10 million commitment to fund Black colleges.

Black women are also increasingly making their philanthropic homes in giving circles—the latest iteration of their foremothers’ and Madam Walker’s mutual resource pooling and sharing.2 A recent 2017 report found upwards of 1,300 giving circles across all 50 states, 60% of which are organized around social identities such as race, gender, or religion. While the WomenGive 2019 study identified 40 giving circles based on Black identity, that number is likely low given the growth experienced over the past several decades and this larger history of collective giving. Groups like Sisterhood of Philanthropists Impacting Needs of Denver and co-ed groups like Black Benefactors of Washington D.C. are engaging African Americans across a variety of income levels in collective philanthropic giving to address Black community needs in ways reminiscent of Madam C. J. Walker and her peers.

  1. “Wealthiest Negro Woman’s Suburban Mansion,” New York Times Magazine, November 4, 1917, p. 4.
  2.  Giving Circles are organized groups of people who donate agreed upon amounts into a fund and collectively decide where, how, and to whom that money should be given. They may be organized independently or housed within larger fiduciaries like community foundations, universities, or churches.
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Tyrone McKinley Freeman

Tyrone McKinley Freeman is assistant professor of philanthropic studies and director of undergraduate programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. His work focuses on the history of philanthropy, philanthropy in communities of color, and philanthropy in higher education. He is co-author of 'Race, Gender and Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations' (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). His philanthropic biography entitled 'Equally Generous and American: The Philanthropic Life of Madam C.J. Walker' is under contract by the University of Illinois Press.

Comments on “The Collectivist Roots of Madam C. J. Walker’s Philanthropy

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    Fantastic!! Finally – work that helps us better contextualize surrounding epic philanthropic events like Oprah Winfrey’s 40 million to open a school for women, the ways in which the AKAs lead the charge on “saving” Bennett College, and even the recent enormous generosity of Mr. Smith to the Morehouse class of 2019.

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