How Madam CJ Walker Empowered Black Giving in the Time of Jim Crow

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 20, 2020. We are resharing in celebration of Black Philanthropy Month.

On October 12, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI celebrated the launch of Dr. Tyrone McKinley Freeman’s new book, Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy During Jim Crow. Moderated by Bob Grimm, Philanthropy Historian at the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute, the event featured conversations with Freeman, as well as Madam Walker’s great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, who also wrote the foreword for the book.

The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy celebrated the launch of Dr. Tyrone McKinley Freeman’s book about the life and legacy of Madam C.J. Walker in an event featuring the author, the chair of the Do Good Institute, and Walker’s great-great granddaughter. (Image Credit: University of Illinois Press)

The event opened with a welcome from Bob Grimm, the night’s moderator. He began by introducing Dr. Freeman, a professor at the Lilly School, and a prolific author whose work has been featured in a wide range of outlets. Grimm also introduced A’Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker’s great-great granddaughter and author of many books about Madam Walker and her legacy.

“For All The Generous Church Women, Club Women, Educators, and Philanthropists…”

Drawing on the personal acknowledgments in Dr. Freeman’s book, Grimm kicked off the conversation by asking about Freeman’s inspiration to write a book about Madam C.J. Walker. Freeman shared that he comes from a strong, supportive Baptist community — something he shares in common with Madam Walker — with a large emphasis on the tradition of giving back.

“I found myself in a professional space that didn’t seem to know what to do with this tradition,” said Freeman. This formed the basis of his passion for uncovering and highlighting African American philanthropy across history, as well as the power of Black philanthropy today. “Whether or not they know it, they’re part of this larger tradition,” Freeman said of African American philanthropists and “everyday givers” who contribute to their communities today.

Madam Walker’s Legacy of Giving

Madam C.J. Walker is well known as the first self-made American woman millionaire, but her great-granddaughter says it’s more important what she did with the money rather than how she built her wealth. Bundles joined the conversation to share the impact of Walker’s community on her attitudes toward philanthropy.

“She is a multidimensional woman who really embodies all of the aspirations of her generation,” she said.

Following a video preview of Dr. Freeman’s book, Bundles, Grimm, and Freeman spoke further about Walker’s “gospel of giving,” which spanned her support for education and empowerment in communities of color, during the time of Jim Crow–when segregation was enforced by law and fighting for change was even harder than it is today.

“Her life was her essay,” said Freeman, suggesting that Walker’s approach to giving wasn’t something that she did performatively or in small amounts, but rather to be an example to others, and to give with generosity however she was able to show support over her entire lifetime. Contrasted with the men and white women of the era, many of whom inherited their wealth or used their philanthropy as a source of bragging rights, Walker’s “ethos of philanthropy” represented the spirit of generosity at its core.

How the Walker Company Epitomized Madam’s Gospel of Giving

Freeman called the Walker Company “the original FUBU — for us, by us.” The company wasn’t just about profit-making, but about empowering and lifting up African Americans in business. He explained that Walker used her company to further her philanthropy in many of the same ways that churches and communities used collaborative giving to enact social change. Unlike her contemporaries (or even modern conglomerates), Walker did not set up a separate foundation for her philanthropic work, but rather folded it directly into the Walker Company.

Bundles extrapolated on this topic by sharing Walker’s experiences using the Walker Company as a meeting place for social change organizations. Meetings with national churches and national philanthropic organizations took place within the building, and Walker had a hand in many critical philanthropic efforts of the era.

Paving the Path for Future Philanthropy

Freeman pointed out that Walker created a sense of corporate responsibility in an era before “nonprofits” and “CSR” were even terms. Her approach to business — elevating employees rather than relying on them to cut the bottom line — is similar to the approaches of social responsibility-focused businesses today.

Bundles agreed that Walker’s work as both a philanthropist and a fair employer shaped a unique type of business philanthropy that was unheard of for the time, but has become the basis that many nonprofit organizations try to align themselves to today.

Both speakers pointed out the importance of comparing Walker’s work to the lukewarm responses that corporations have had to the Black Lives Matter movement today. It’s not enough to simply claim that your organization is aligned with social justice (through social media posts and “open letters” from the CEO). Instead, corporations have to step up, put their money where their mouths are, and actively, publicly, and loudly fund organizations that empower underserved communities, particularly women and girls of color.

The event closed with a Q&A section with the audience, as well as thanks from Freeman, Bundles, and Grimm.

You can view the video preview for the book below. To purchase the book, visit the University of Illinois Press website here.


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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist. A Maryland transplant by way of Florida, DC, Ireland, Philadelphia, and -- most recently -- Salt Lake City, she has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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