During annual Black History Month celebrations, we usually focus on African Americans who have come before and who have done things, or said things that moved the quality of Black life forward. Mostly, as the name says (his-story), we have not often enough focused on what African American women have done. That is not intrinsically bad, but it is a fact.
This column this week will focus on Sarah Breedlove, a.k.a. Madame C.J. Walker, America’s first Black female millionaire. We’ve long praised her financial and entrepreneurial genius, but we have only rarely talked about her Black activism.
Madame Walker was a race woman. She used many of the dollars she had earned in beauty products to help finance major Black projects, including Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (U.N.I.A.-A.C.L.), the largest Black movement in U.S. history, and she strategized with A. Philip Randolph (The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first Black Labor Union) and Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and supported their activist efforts as well.
Madame Walker was a major investor in Garvey’s Black Star Steamship Company, she provided major financial funding for the Garvey newspaper, The Negro World, and she helped pay for the costs of Garvey’s New York headquarters, though she never officially joined the organization. She also supported school projects in South Africa, and she worked with W.E.B. Dubois’ former partner, William Monroe Trotter, in setting up the National Race Congress for World Democracy Conference in New York in 1918. A few weeks after that successful gathering, Madame Walker organized her own international organization, the International League of Darker Peoples (ILDP). She used her New York home to host initial meetings of the group, and to have strategy sessions with Mr. Garvey and other Black activists of the day to advance the interests of people of color both in the U.S. and around the world.
The ILDP, as short-lived as it was, provided a platform for Madame Walker to advocate for the rights and dignity of marginalized people as part of a post-WWI anti-imperialist, anti-colonial popular fervor in the country. Different from other Black activist groups, the ILDP championed collaboration between Black people and those of Asian descent. Walker, for instance, worked closely with Japanese editor S. Kuroiwa, publisher of the newspaper Yorozu Choho, to coordinate a Black-Asian presence at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Federal surveillance of the organization began immediately after that Paris Conference, and the organization virtually collapsed that same year as Madame Walker died in May,1919, at the early age of 51 years.
Madame Walker justifiably should be remembered for her financial and business brilliance, but she also made a significant mark in being an effective advocate—among other bold, strong African American female activists who have not always received the recognition they are due—and she should be given “a tip of the hat” for that too. She did not merely rest on her laurels or money. Like Harriet Tubman, California’s Mary (Mammy) Ellen Pleasant, Anna Julia Cooper and others, she made sure she used her short time here to move the race forward as much as possible.
Thank you, Madame Walker.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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