Madam Walker’s Mentors, Sister Friends and Rivals

Posted on 09/08/2019 at 6:13pm
Madam C. J. Walker (Madam Walker Family Archives)
Madam Walker with members of her staff including Alice Kelly and Violet Davis Reynolds (Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

Madam Walker with members of her staff including Alice Kelly and Violet Davis Reynolds (Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

I’ve written a lot about Madam C. J. Walker’s professional and financial achievements, but to truly understand who she was at her core, I’ve also examined her relationships with other women: her mentors, her sister friends, her employees and her rivals.

Behind the public persona of the woman who defied the odds to become a millionaire entrepreneur is a more private person who valued and benefited from her friendships with other women.

This is not to ignore the men in her life. Her three brief marriages – one husband died and the other two cheated on her – surely motivated her to be self-sufficient. She made much wiser choices in selecting her business associates, especially Freeman B. Ransom, the attorney who became the Walker Company’s longtime general manager.

Atty. F. B. Ransom joined the Walker Company in 1911.

Atty. F. B. Ransom joined the Walker Company in 1911.

She valued business and political collaborations with men like Indianapolis Freeman publisher George Knox, Crisis editor W. E. B. Du Bois, Tuskegee Institute principal Booker T. Washington, musician James Reese Europe and Messenger publisher A. Philip Randolph.

And of course her relationship with her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, is central to understanding what made her tick. (I’ve written about this in On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker and will have much more to say in my in-progress book, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance.)

But it is Madam Walker’s early experiences of being helped by other women that made her so devoted to empowering her sales agents and to supporting causes and organizations that helped girls and women. “I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself, for I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race,” she said at the 1914 National Negro Business League Convention.

 

Madam Walker's 1917 Convention (Madam Walker Family Archives)

Madam Walker’s 1917 Convention (Madam Walker Family Archives)

In 1917, at the first national convention of the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culturists Union, she implored the delegates to use part of their earnings to better their communities as large numbers of African Americans were abandoning the rural south and moving to cities in the north. “I want my agents to feel that their first duty is to humanity,” she said. “Let the world know that the Walker agents are ready to do their bit to help and advance the best interests of the Race.”

She understood the hardships the migrants faced because she had experienced the same challenges. When Sarah Breedlove McWilliams moved from Vicksburg, Mississippi to join her older brothers in St. Louis in 1888, she was a 20-year old widow with a two-year old daughter. It was the women of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal — the church near her brother’s barber shop — who helped her see that she could aspire to something more than a life of drudgery as a washerwoman.

Jessie Batts Robinson, a schoolteacher and St. Paul’s member, took a particular interest in Sarah and her daughter. The home Jessie shared with her husband (and St. Louis Argus editor), Christopher “C. K.” Robinson, was a refuge for the struggling young mother. As national officers of the Knights of Pythias and the Court of Calanthe (the K of P women’s auxiliary), the Robinsons exposed Sarah to the powerful network of black fraternal organizations.

Jessie Batts Robinson with 1939 Walker graduates in St. Louis.

Jessie Batts Robinson with 1939 Walker graduates in St. Louis.

After she founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1906, Madam Walker intentionally surrounded herself with skilled and educated employees. She had a talent for identifying leaders and encouraging them to shine. Aware that her own lack of formal education could be a hindrance, she sought employees who could help shore up her deficits. She considered it a coup that Alice Kelly, dean of girls at Kentucky’s Eckstein Norton Institute, agreed to join the Walker Company as “forelady” – or manager – of her factory.

Alice Kelly managed the Walker Factory in Indianapolis (Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

Alice Kelly managed the Walker Factory in Indianapolis (Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

Kelly also served as her private tutor and sometimes traveling companion. Violet Davis Reynolds, who began working at the Walker Company as a secretary in 1914, later described the role Kelly played in helping Walker polish her presentations: “Whenever I traveled with them, I remember Madam asking Miss Kelly immediately after her speech, ‘How did I do? How can I do better?’”

That desire to improve – from her handwriting to her grammar – was critical to her success.

As with any successful entrepreneur, Madam Walker also had competitors, most notably Annie Turnbo Malone. It is true that Sarah Breedlove McWilliams sold Malone’s Poro products for about a year in St. Louis and then in Denver. Not long after she married Charles Joseph “C. J.” Walker in early 1906, there was a rift of some kind between the two women. By April of 1906 Madam Walker was selling her own line of hair care products.

I’ve written about this fissure in On Her Own Ground and soon will write in more detail about what some have made into a posthumous rivalry, but based on Madam Walker’s own comments on the matter, I’ve come to believe that whatever conflicts existed became more background noise than something of major significance to her. Much is made about the millionaire status of the two women. We are fortunate that F. B. Ransom and Violet Reynolds were such conscientious record keepers. As a result, thousands of pages of Madam Walker’s personal and business correspondence are preserved at the Indiana Historical Society and allow us to know the value of Madam Walker’s estate and the value of her company at the time of her death. Based on records and tax assessments, we can document that the value of her personal assets was between $600,000 and $700,000 and that the value of her company was between $1 million and $2 million. There is no comparable set of records for the Poro Company.

After decades of research, I’ve come to believe that the chance to sell Malone’s products was a catalyst that helped Sarah Breedlove McWilliams escape St. Louis and a troubled second marriage. But I’ve also come to think the relationship was more transactional than collaborative.

Both women were successful entrepreneurs and philanthropists whose legacies are important in the history of American business. But each woman made very different decisions about how she ran her business, the people she chose to put in leadership positions and her marketing strategies. Madam Walker’s decision to open a Harlem office in 1913 catapulted her into the public consciousness and gave her a national platform just as Malone was being sued by a former employee and a year before she married a man who would undermine her company.

Walker Company Employees at the Indianapolis Factory circa 1912. (Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

Walker Company Employees at the Indianapolis Factory circa 1912. (Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives)

The women whom Madam Walker would have named as her most significant mentors are Jessie Batts Robinson and Alice Kelly. Among those she truly admired and counted as friends were women like anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, Mary Burnett Talbert (the NAACP organizer and former National Association of Colored Women president who led the drive to preserve Frederick Douglass’s home) and educator Mary McLeod Bethune.

Ultimately Madam Walker’s legacy is that of women empowering and supporting each other, then using their leadership and financial profits to better their communities and the lives of their families.
On September 19, 2019 an exhibit featuring Madam Walker will open at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis. Her legacy also thrives at the Madam Walker Legacy Center and through the MCJW line of hair care products at Sephora.

 

No Comments

You must be logged in to post a comment.