Who Was the 1st Black Millionairess?

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

Madam C.J. Walker (A'Lelia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Collection)

I have no doubt this topic would’ve made for interesting conversation between Washington and Walker (after all, having come from similar places, weren’t they after similar things with not dissimilar risks?). Yet, try as Walker did to curry Washington’s favor, her initial forays only met his grudging acknowledgment, even though many of the wives Washington knew, including his own — the wives of the very ministers denouncing products like Walker’s — were dreaming of the same straight styles.

“To Help My Race”

Apparently, two things changed Washington’s mind about Walker: her mouth — and her purse. The stage for the “thawing” was set in 1911, when Walker donated $1,000 to the Black YMCA of Indianapolis. It was a considerable gift for the time, and those in the know took note. A year later, A’Lelia Bundles writes, Walker “set another goal for herself: to address the delegates of the 1912 National Negro Business League (NNBL) convention,” which Washington had founded. “For two days of the convention, [Washington] ignored her overture,” Bundles writes. Undaunted, on the third and final day, Walker rose from her seat to interrupt him at the podium.

“Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face,” she shouted. “I am a woman that came from the cotton fields of the South; I was promoted from there to the wash-tub; then I was promoted to the cook kitchen, and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations … I am not ashamed of my past; I am not ashamed of my humble beginning. Don’t think that because you have to go down in the wash-tub that you are any less a lady!” Whatever Washington thought personally of Walker, at that moment he could not prevent the audience from applauding — or continue treating her coldly for much longer. She, too, meant business. 

At the next convention, Madam Walker was not only on the schedule; she was a keynote speaker, and the next time she extended an invitation for Washington to visit her in Indianapolis, he came, even agreeing to pose for a photo with her and others in formal attire in the hot summer sun outside the newly dedicated YMCA building she’d helped fund. Walker knew what she was doing: Not only did Washington have powerful friends, his imprimatur meant legitimacy. In turn, she helped pay the tuition of six students at Tuskegee. In doing so, and much more, Walker was fast establishing herself as a businesswoman who gave back — as an early practitioner of what we now call “corporate social responsibility.”

I wish I could list all of Madam Walker’s philanthropic activities in the 1910s, many of them awarded through her Madam C.J. Walker Benevolent Association. A number she directed with such urgency, according to A’Lelia Bundles, that they attracted the government’s suspicion. Walker was particularly passionate about stemming the blood tide of lynchings in the country, including the deaths of hundreds of blacks during the notorious East St. Louis riots in the spring of 1917.

In their wake, Walker worked with the organizers of the July 28, 1917, Negro Silence Protest Parade and joined W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson in attempting to deliver a petition to President Woodrow Wilson at the White House. She also enlisted 200 of her own Walker agents to send a joint telegram to Wilson from that year’s Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention, decrying “the continuation of such wrongs and injustices in this ‘land of the free, and home of the brave.’ ” She even voiced support for Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” campaign, perhaps motivated by marketing prospects afforded by the continent of kinky hair that she imagined awaited consumption of her product!

“Villa Lewaro”

In 1918 the Walker Manufacturing Co. generated close to $300,000 in sales. That same year, Madam Walker moved into her prize four-and-a-half acre estate overlooking the Hudson River in Irvington, N.Y., not far from the Rockefellers of Westchester County. “Impossible!” her “frankly puzzled” white neighbors exclaimed to the New York Times when they realized that the black woman “in the high-powered motorcar” wasn’t just an interloper. “No woman of her race could afford such a place.”