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Friday, July 12, 2024

More than a businesswoman: Researcher unearths Madam Walker’s philanthropic legacy

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People know about Madam C.J. Walker. They know she was wealthy, they know she built a successful business empire and they know she had a lasting impact in Indianapolis.

But Dr. Tyrone McKinley Freeman, assistant professor of philanthropic studies and director of undergraduate programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, wants people to know more, specifically about Walker’s generosity.

“I wanted to find out what it meant for Madam Walker to be a philanthropist. It’s one of the things that’s commonly associated with her, but there wasn’t much information about exactly what that meant,” Freeman said. “I really wanted to know what was behind all that, what motivated that, where did it come from, what was she trying to do, how did she give.”

Freeman’s research was the first in-depth look at the topic and has been recognized by the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action — one of the top national associations of scholars who study philanthropy — with the 2016 Gabriel G. Rudney Memorial Award for Outstanding Dissertation in Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research.

Freeman said he learned through his research that Walker’s philanthropy was both unique and representative of others’ efforts; it was unique in that she started giving early in her life, not just after she became wealthy, and representative of how other African-Americans, especially women, were giving.

Freeman said there’s a rich history of Black businesses putting their companies to work in the fight against injustice, all the way back to the days of slavery. Walker’s enterprise was no different. 

“She really thought about using this company to provide opportunity for people locked out of certain types of employment and for people locked into menial labor,” Freeman said, explaining how Walker’s principles of lifting up others spread out through those she’d helped lift.

“We see her agents donating money and furniture and resources to Black colleges, to organizations like the NAACP,” he said. “She organized them into clubs to not only build beauty culture as a respectable profession, but also to bring women together to advocate against lynching … and to continue the fight against Jim Crow.”

And Freeman said Walker’s focus on giving continues to be a positive example for businesses to follow today, in addition to beating back stereotypes that people of color aren’t involved in philanthropy.

“There’s a rich philanthropic tradition in communities of color, and that often gets overlooked or not appreciated enough,” he said. There’s a myth that people of color don’t give or are not involved. That’s just not true. There’s a rich tradition, and Madam Walker represents this tradition of everyday African-American men and women pooling together what they have to be helpful.”

He hopes his work brings new focus to this integral part of Walker’s legacy.

“My research shows we can recover her philanthropy and put that central to her story … really enrich that story and give a deeper way of thinking about her and her peers,” he said.


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