Who Was the First Black Millionairess?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Even if you know the answer, you don't know the whole story.

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"Perseverance … is my motto," Walker told the New York Times. "It laid the Atlantic cable; it gave us the telegraph, telephone and wireless. It gave to the world an Abraham Lincoln, and to a race freedom."

While continuing to press forward on all cylinders (she was an advocate for black enlistment in World War I and for confronting the excesses of colonialism after the armistice), Madam Walker loved to entertain guests, watch silent films, take in sports and buy cars she could drive at high speeds. In addition to her business holdings, she owned properties in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, Savannah and two in New York, including a $50,000 Harlem brownstone she gifted to her daughter.

Too soon, just one year after moving into Villa Lewaro, Madam Walker succumbed to kidney failure at the age of 51 on May 25, 1919. Among her last words: "I want to live to help my race." Among her last actions, according to Bundles: making a $5,000 pledge to the NAACP's anti-lynching fund and revising her will, "directing two-thirds of future net profits of her estate to charity and bequeathing nearly $100,000 to individuals, educational institutions and orphanages." 

Paying tribute to her, W.E.B. Du Bois said: "It is given to a few persons to transform a people in a generation. Yet this was done by the late Madam Walker." The New York Times put it more bluntly, "Wealthiest Negress Dead," estimating her personal fortune to be $1 million. In fact, it was between $600,000 and $700,000, which in today's dollars would be nearer to $8 million (her company was worth more).

Legacy

After her mother's death, A'Lelia helped run the Walker Manufacturing Company with her adopted daughter Mae and others, but her main influence was as patron of the Harlem Renaissance, which her friend Langston Hughes said died with her in 1931. In the 1980s, the Walker family sold off all remaining interest in the company, which is currently owned by the Raymond Randolph family. The Walker Building in Indianapolis no longer houses her state-of-the-art factory, salon and school, but instead holds the Madam Walker Theatre Center, a national historic landmark. 

In addition to numerous honors, including inspiring Duke Ellington's only opera, Queenie Pie, and being featured on a 1998 U.S. postage stamp, Madam Walker is the subject of the Harvard Business School case study mentioned above. In a 2012 interview with Madamenoire, one of its authors, Nancy Koehn, said: "[Walker's] something like an early Mary Kay, except that she has these broad, ambitious social goals … Her endurance, her deftness, her idealism, married to good business sense, those are all great lessons for our moment."

Today, Madam Walker's great-granddaughter, A'Lelia Bundles, carries the family torch as a brilliant author and educator. Her 2001 biography, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, was a New York Times Notable Book. She also edits a website on the Walker family. Bundles may not have a diploma from Lelia College, but she has a degree from Harvard, and she is vice chair of trustees at Columbia University. "There is no royal flower-strewn path to success," she likes to quote her great-grandmother. "And if there is, I have not found it, for whatever success I have attained has been the result of much hard work and many sleepless nights. I got my start by giving myself a start. So don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. You have to get up and make them for yourselves!"

As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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