Madam C.J. Walker and the AME Roots of her Gospel of Giving
Madam C.J. Walker and the AME Roots of her Gospel of Giving
Madam C.J. Walker’s (1867-1919) achievements as a successful early twentieth-century Black entrepreneur are widely known. Most recently played by Oscar award-winner Octavia Spencer in the Netflix miniseries, Self Made, Walker built a Black cosmetics company based in Indianapolis at the height of Jim Crow segregation. She earned significant wealth and fame, and fought for racial and gender justice. Save for one major church-based scene, however, the series did not fully convey the depths of Walker’s religious identity and its impact on her philanthropy.
In 1914, Walker told a local Indianapolis Freeman newspaper interviewer about the joy she experienced in giving to others. “She takes great stock in the theory that the Lord loves a cheerful giver,” observed the writer following their conversation. But Walker was not simply invoking II Corinthians 9:7, she was expressing deeply rooted convictions grounded in her faith commitment to the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
As I write in my new book, Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy during Jim Crow (University of Illinois, 2020), the AME Church played a powerful role in the transformation story of how this Black woman rose from a southern cotton plantation to live a life of faith and generosity that continues to inspire 100 years later. Walker’s early experiences in the AME Church excited her moral imagination, and guided much of her philanthropy for the rest of her life.
Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 after Emancipation to a family that had been enslaved on a cotton plantation in Delta, LA. As Walker biographer and descendant A’Lelia Bundles has explained, the Breedloves were a Baptist family. As they toiled in the cotton fields, they found solace in the local Pollard Church pastored by Rev. Curtis Pollard, a Black state senator in Louisiana’s reconstructed government. Orphaned by age 7, Sarah moved to Vicksburg, MS, under the care of her older sister, and struggled for years as a washerwoman. Following the death of her first husband, Sarah fled to St. Louis in the late 1880s with her toddler, Lelia, in tow.
She quickly found comfort at St. Paul AME Church. For more than a decade, St. Paul’s had been receiving and supporting Black migrants heading westward out of the South in search of safety and opportunity. Sarah benefited from the church’s safety net of social programs through which her daughter gained access to school and she found friendship and inspiration. St. Paul’s opened up a new world for Sarah that was vastly different from the horrors she experienced in Delta. As a Black-owned international institution, the AME church was preaching the dignity of Black life, fighting Jim Crow, and building schools. It had a vibrant print culture, and conducted missions in faraway places Sarah could barely imagine. Its very existence openly defied racist myths about Black inferiority and immorality. Consequently, Sarah converted to AME and remained a devout member for the rest of her life.
AME Churchwomen’s Philanthropic Service
Women in the AME church aided Sarah’s religious conversion and larger transformation. Jessie Batts Robinson was a local schoolteacher in St. Louis who led women’s groups within St. Paul’s. She led the church’s Mite Missionary Society through which women provided service to the arriving migrants. The group aided Sarah, and she observed its good works at large. They started an orphanage and an old folks’ home. They modeled respectability and activism as they challenged the local white power structure through groups like the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the fraternal Order of the Court of Calanthe. Jessie became a lifelong friend and mentor to Sarah, and would eventually work for Sarah’s company, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. Sarah, who adopted the name of her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, started the company a few years after leaving St. Louis in 1905.
The example and impact of AME women like Jessie caused Madam Walker to later heap continuous donations on St. Paul’s Mite Missionary Society throughout her lifetime. In 1912, she told a newspaper that she gave to St. Louis in order to honor the “kindnesses” shown to her and her daughter while living there—a nod to the women of the church. Accordingly, she made estate plans to support the missionary society, other charities, and women, like Jessie, directly.
Becoming a Giver
St. Paul’s not only supported Sarah through the most difficult portion of her life, but also provided her with opportunities for service. AME Church founder Richard Allen (1760-1831) had written that charity was “pure and disinterested, remote from all hopes or views of worldly return or recompence from the persons we relieve. We are to do good and lend, hoping for nothing again.” Following suit, Sarah the struggling migrant became Sarah the giver. After reading about a local elderly man with a blind sister and ill wife, she raised money and collected food to help them. “It was in St. Louis that [she] learned that it was truly her mission to relieve the poor and the distressed according as she was able,” the Indianapolis Freeman newspaper reported following an interview with Walker.
Such began Walker’s life of giving along the way, as she was able, rather than waiting until rich (Walker’s gospel of giving). She was grounded in Christian charity, racial uplift ideology, and Black women’s generosity as taught by her AME Church. Walker would go on to create and practice an expansive philanthropy that ranged from addressing the local needs of Black communities through the provision of food, social services, and education to activist and advocacy efforts to dismantle Jim Crow through the NAACP, the NACW and other national and international organizations.
Over time, Walker was also a member of Shorter Chapel AME in Denver, Bethel AME in Indianapolis, and Mother AME Zion in New York. She found her spiritual home in the AME Church with its teachings on charity and Black dignity, its activist stance in using the gospel of Christ to fight injustice, and its women who mentored her. Through it, she found nourishment for the sacred part of her that birthed a new vision for her own life and an agenda of service and uplift for Black women and people of color around the world. Her legacy continues today in the movements for Black Lives and racial and gender justice.
Tyrone McKinley Freeman, Ph.D. is author of Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy during Jim Crow (University of Illinois Pres, 2020). He is assistant professor of philanthropic studies and director of undergraduate programs at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Attending to our Giving Stories, Past and Present
by David P. King, Ph.D.
Giving stories are powerful. At Lake Institute, we encourage everyone to think back to the people and places that shaped them to be generous: as individuals, as families and as communities.
Beyond our own stories, there is also much to learn from contemporary and historical models of generosity. Dr. Tyrone Freeman rightly points us to Madam C.J. Walker. Underexplored until recently, Walker’s story is a remarkable one. Not only was she the first Black American woman to be a self-made millionaire, but she was also an entrepreneur, social activist, and philanthropist.
As Freeman makes clear, Walker’s giving story is both remarkably simple and complex. One could point to her Christian faith and its clear call to be a cheerful giver, care for the widows and orphans, as well as return a portion of what we have been blessed with back to God. It is clear that Walker’s faith inspired her giving, but few generosity stories are quite so simple. She balanced the complexities of philanthropy and charity, working both for long-term social change as well as meeting immediate needs. As an early social entrepreneur, she not only made charitable donations but also investments fostering other black women to become successful businesswomen. And she was forging her own path all along the way with few models to follow.
Yet, Freeman also makes clear, Walker was not doing this work from a blank slate. Her moral imagination was shaped by the institutions and communities of which she was a part. Chief among these was the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Surely founder Richard Allen and other pastors played a role in her thinking, but it was more likely the churchwomen and their missionary societies that shaped Walker. It was the schoolteachers, washerwomen, and other local ladies that supported her and her family when they first arrived in St. Louis. And the AME’s Mite Missionary Societies that shaped Walker were not simply offering handouts to those in need. They demonstrated how Black religious women were creating their own alternate power structures necessary in the midst of Jim Crow.
Perhaps today too, we must not forget the power of religious traditions and the agency of these institutions and communities to shape philanthropic imagination. Of course, Walker illustrates there is rarely just a single influence shaping our stories. Walker’s story was a melding of old and new, sacred and secular, supporting local social uplift while fighting internationally for racial and gender justice. As our own religions institutions evolve in facing current challenges such as rising disaffiliation and declines in volunteering and giving as well as the current crises of public health and racial injustice, what can stories like Walker’s teach us about our own efforts to foster generosity? I think the answer is clear: quite a lot.
What struck you about the moral imagination shaping Walker’s philanthropy?
What contemporary or historical figures may serve as a guide for your own giving?
Insights, a bi-weekly e-newsletter, is a resource for the religious community and fundraisers of faith-based organizations that provides:
- Reflections on important developments in the field of faith and giving
- Recommended books, studies and articles
- Upcoming Lake Institute events