Updated March 20, 2020
Last night, Netflix released a 4-part miniseries entitled, “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” starring Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer. Dr. Tyrone McKinley Freeman, an expert on Madam C.J. Walker and philanthropy in communities of color, has been studying Walker and black women’s philanthropy for a decade. He provided commentary on the series, and has been doing media interviews surrounding its release.
In his new book entitled, Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy during Jim Crow, which will be released by the University of Illinois Press on October 12, 2020, Dr. Freeman uses philanthropy to reexamine the life of Walker, who owned an international beauty product company based in Indianapolis and became widely known as the first American self-made female millionaire.
This is an important time to revisit Walker’s legacy. Last year marked the 100th anniversary of her death, and 2017 marked the 90th anniversary of the construction of her company headquarters building, which still stands in downtown Indianapolis. It is now called the Madam C.J. Walker Legacy Center and provides educational, cultural, artistic, and community programming in partnership with IUPUI and Indiana University. It is currently completing a $15 million renovation funded by Lilly Endowment.
Before studying Madam Walker, Dr. Freeman worked as a fundraiser for a community development corporation in Indianapolis. He began taking courses within The Fund Raising School, which then set him on a career path in development where he served organizations in youth and family social services and higher education.
Eventually, he became the associate director of The Fund Raising School where he traveled around the country and to Africa, Asia, and Europe teaching nonprofit professionals and developing curricula. He knew he wanted to learn more though, and began as a Ph.D. candidate in the newly-established philanthropic studies Ph.D. program.
Dr. Freeman began studying Madam Walker soon afterward, and later joined the school’s faculty.
Exploring Madam Walker
“I’ve always been interested in the multiplicity of philanthropy; what counts as philanthropy and who counts as a philanthropist,” he said. “I’ve known Madam Walker’s story since I was a child. I had heard she was a philanthropist, but didn’t see her in the philanthropy textbooks or other related research. Nobody had written about her in that way, so I decided to take the opportunity to do so.”
Dr. Freeman soon learned from working in archives at the Indiana Historical Society, the Chicago Public Library, Yale University, and digital archives of black newspapers, just how vibrant and significant was Madam Walker’s philanthropic story.
“She did so many activities and projects that fit under the notion of philanthropy in terms of voluntary action for the public good,” he said. “She saw her company as a vehicle and opportunity for uplifting and empowering African-American women by providing jobs outside of menial labor. She incubated salons to help black women launch businesses. Education was important for her, so she created a network of beauty schools to offer a professional credential at a time when there were unjust legal limitations placed on black learning.
“She organized her agents into clubs so they could sell products and serve others. The agents did charity work in their communities. They produced a resolution against lynching, so there was an activist element to it where they were collectively raising their voices as black women.
“Madam Walker also donated money to southern black schools and to social service organizations. She’s very courageous, thwarting Jim Crow, and showing others how to do so as well while creating opportunities in her community for African-Americans, especially African-American women. She’s given me a window into how vibrant philanthropy was in the black community 100 years ago.”
However, Dr. Freeman also explained how “ordinary” Madam Walker was in relation to her time. While she was an extraordinary case, she did what she was taught to do by black women mentors.
“This is what they did; the expectation was that you would give back to society,” Dr. Freeman explained. “Madam Walker had a unique platform and more resources than the average person, but she was doing what black women typically did in their communities. This point is essential for understanding her, and black women more broadly, as philanthropists.”
Students learn about Madam Walker in the classroom, but in different ways. Rather than include her solely in a section on race and philanthropy or gender and philanthropy, Dr. Freeman seeks to weave her story in various sections throughout his class.
“She gave in many different ways. I could include her in a section on different ways to give or social entrepreneurship,” he said. “Rather than limit student exposure to her in the more obvious categories of race and gender, I can weave her into the general discourse and bring topics like her or communities of color into the center. It’s re-thinking the way we approach and teach philanthropy.”
In addition, Dr. Freeman also conducts research on philanthropy in higher education and philanthropy in communities of color in general. His current projects include research on million dollar giving to historically black colleges and universities, and the landscape of African-American philanthropy in the 21st century.
“In both studies, we can learn how and why these donors conceptualize their giving and what they’re trying to accomplish with those gifts. In the process, we can observe how historical practices of giving from 100+ years ago have evolved and impact giving in the community today,” he said.
Through those studies, and his research on Madam C.J. Walker, Dr. Freeman hopes to shed new light on philanthropic giving in traditionally overlooked communities.
“These communities teach us about the scope, limits, and possibilities of philanthropy,” he said. “They also illustrate that people in communities of color come out of longstanding, historical traditions of giving and have been actively engaged in philanthropic work from the beginning of their American experience. They aren’t new or emerging donors in that sense.
“In addition, fundraisers and others in the philanthropic field have expressed interest in what’s broadly being termed as diversity in fundraising and philanthropy. That interest and the growing number of questions from donors of color about their giving and their history is giving academia the opportunity to try to connect donors of color with information and resources so they can become more effective in their giving. It also gives academia the chance to contribute and learn about what philanthropy is, how it’s being done, who’s doing it, and why they’re doing it.”
Tyrone McKinley Freeman, Ph.D., is assistant professor of philanthropic studies and director of undergraduate programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.