March is National Women’s History Month. All month long we are celebrating by looking at some of the remarkable women throughout history who have made a huge difference in fundraising and humanitarian work.
In our first post in the series, we featured Eleanor Roosevelt. Now we will look at the life and work of Madam C.J. Walker, who, in addition to her hugely successful business career, is well remembered for her philanthropy and activism.
Walker, born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, was the first female self-made millionaire in the United States, earning her success through her popular line of hair and beauty products for African-American women. After setting up a permanent headquarters and factory in Indianapolis, Indiana, she began to use her wealth to support philanthropic causes throughout the country.
The first cause Walker supported was the building of a Young Men’s Christian Association facility in a predominantly black neighborhood in Indianapolis. She donated $1,000.00 to the building fund, and said of the project:
Walker went on to make charitable contributions to a long list of organizations. These donations included scholarships for African students at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs’ fund to preserve Frederick Douglass’s Anacostia house.
Shortly before her death in 1919, Walker made one final donation, contributing $5,000 (about $65,000 in 2012) to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund, the largest gift from an individual that the NAACP had ever received. In her will, she left one-third of her estate to her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, and the other two-thirds to charitable organizations.
Social and Political Activism
Walker did more than simply donate funds to charitable organizations. She also became directly involved in political and social activism, particularly after moving some of her operations to Harlem in New York City. In 1917, Walker joined the executive committee of the Silent Protest Parade, a protest against a riot in East St. Louis that drew more than 8,000 African-Americans to Fifth Avenue.
A few days after the Silent Protest Parade, she visited the White House to press President Woodrow Wilson into taking steps to make lynching a federal crime.
Madam C.J. Walker made a profound impact on the United States, particularly the lives of African-Americans, and her successful rise to prominence was no small feat. In Walker’s own words:
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the wash tub… from there to the kitchen… and from there, I promoted myself!”