1998 U.S. Postage stamp, honoring Madam C. J.
Ever wonder who your role models’ role models are? I do.
What made Harriet Tubman know she could withstand any possible retribution to help other slaves escape? How did Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr know they could move into an unknown (to them) neighborhood, and run a settlement house? And how did Madam C. J. Walker determine that she would create and sell products for black women that would make her a household name? Maybe some people are just born with an indomitable spirit and internal compass, no role model necessary. Some people create a path where there was none. And this lady was certainly one of those people.
Sarah Breedlove Walker, industrious and indefatigable, came to embody the ultimate independence for a woman–her southern roots, her skin color and all the accompanying indignities be damned. A washerwoman, turned businesswoman, turned philanthropist–her success paved an inspirational path for other black women longing to seize a piece of the so-called “American dream.”
Indianapolis may not claim Madam Walker as a born-and bread Hoosier. But her chapter in Indiana’s capital city was a pivotal one, that changed her adopted city and herself for the better. She is often touted as the country’s first self-made black female millionaire, though according to the definitive website about her life, Madam CJ Walker.com, there could be some parsing over that claim. She may not have had $1,000,000 in the bank when she died, or ever at one time, but the value of her estate and cash certainly put her into that league. Whether she hit that number or not, she was extremely successful financially, and also successful in helping other black women earn a decent living through her company’s marketing strategy.
After this unique “hair culturist,” arrived from Pittsburgh in 1910, she quickly became a luminary in the most prominent “colored” neighborhood in the city, adjacent to the bustling Indiana Avenue. She took up residence at 640 West Street, where she lived, rented rooms and operated her hair product business. There are some from within her community who take issue with the products she produced, as the products were often intended to make black women model their hair style after European/ white women, rather than embracing the beauty of their natural hair. While that is an understandable debate, she nonetheless created opportunities for other black women to make money with her products, and gave to countless entities that supported other people of color.
Her celebrity appeared to increase daily within the local community. It was her ambition to “prove colored people can rise in the business world.” A $1000 gift from Mrs. Walker towards establishing a “colored” Y.M.C.A. garnered national publicity and awe. She was also one of the first five women appointed by the central Y. W. C. A. to organize a provisional branch for women of color in 1915. For more than a year, all meetings and a rest and recreation room were provided by her at her home/ business on North West Street. She was Treasurer of the provisional Y. W. C. A. until she moved to New York in 1916. What she helped start eventually became the Phyllis Wheatley Y. W. C. A. branch, and their first official location was at the corner of California and North streets, in the former home of the “colored” Y. M. C. A.
When a prominent black person from elsewhere visited Indianapolis, chances are, they would get together with Madam Walker. When the Y. M. C. A. she helped fund was dedicated in July 1913, Booker T. Washington was her houseguest.
Her generosity and philanthropy was well known and lauded. She held a fundraiser event at the K of P on Senatefor a local young lady of great musical talent named Frances Spencer, to get a harp so that she might pursue her ambitions; the young lady was studying under Pasquall Montani, another harpist. Madam held a charity ball at Tomlinson Hall to help pay off the debt of the Alpha Home for Aged Women, even as she was days from moving to New York; she wanted to ensure they were debt free when she moved to New York. In 1914, she held a big party for her daughter at the Knights of Pythias building on Walnut and Senate. In fact, Walker provided for her daughter in a way she could have only dreamed of– a top notch education, a more than comfortable lifestyle, travel abroad, and business opportunities.
Madam C. J. also enjoyed the fruits of her success: she dressed splendidly, purchased multiple cars, and indulged in other upper class luxuries. One of her greatest pleasures in life was the freedom afforded by a car–whether in the city or across the country, there would be no “separate train” for Madam Walker. While she did employ a full-time chauffeur, around town, she would often prefer her “Pope-Waverley Electric” (also manufactured in Indianapolis), enjoying the freedom it afforded her. She was one of the first people to purchase a limited edition, seven-passenger, Cole touring car, in May 1913. She traveled throughout the country frequently, and after moving to New York, continued to visit Indianapolis, her friends and her business regularly.
What fun it must have been to meander the streets with Madam Walker, dreaming of the day all black women would have such opportunities. The glorious theatre and building nearing her name that still stands at the intersection of Indiana Avenue and West Street, was built years after her death, in 1927.
You can still find her original products now and then on eBay. Like this jar of Brilliantine recently listed for a $2900 opening bid.