In a new profile for The Root, Henry Louis Gates Jr. tells the story of a remarkable early African American entrepreneur, Madam C.J. Walker. Gates says that Walker, who was born into poverty but made a fortune by manufacturing hair care products for African Americans, deserves to be better known. After you read her fascinating story, you’ll be hard pressed to argue.
Walker will be featured in The Rosenwald Schools for her collaboration with Julius Rosenwald to build a YMCA for blacks in her adopted hometown of Indianapolis, a story that Walker’s great-great-granddaughter (and biographer) A’Lelia Bundles recounted for us in an interview a year ago. Rosenwald’s YMCA-building campaign, which resulted in over 20 urban YMCAs, was one of his first philanthropic initiatives in the African American community. Rosenwald offered substantial funding towards the construction of modern buildings for African American YMCAs, but required matching funds to be raised from the local community. Madam Walker rose to the challenge when she donated $1,000 to the Senate Avenue YMCA building fund, the largest single donation made by an African American to a Rosenwald YMCA. The Senate Avenue YMCA was demolished years ago, but many Rosenwald YMCAs are still standing.
Gates talks about Booker T. Washington’s criticisms of Walker’s products (he claimed they promoted white standards of beauty) but suggests the two had more in common than Washington thought. Indeed, after a public clash at the 1912 National Negro Business League convention, the two reconciled and worked towards common causes in both Indianapolis and Tuskegee. Gates describes a photograph, pictured below, of Washington standing with Walker in front of the newly opened Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis that illustrates their mutual respect.
The dedication of Indianapolis’s Rosenwald YMCA, July 1913