Madam C. J. Walker, America’s First Self-made Woman Millionaire, Lives On in Indianapolis

Even a century after her death, America’s first self-made woman millionaire, Madam C. J. Walker, maintains her presence across the city of Indianapolis. These homages continue to remind community members of who she was and all that she gave to the city. Cover graphic by Emily Fischer for Midstory.

Decorated with a striking blend of Art Deco and African motifs on its interior, the Madam Walker Legacy Center is a testament to the lasting influence of the country’s first female self-made millionaire, Madam C. J. Walker, on the city of Indianapolis, where she built her hair-product empire in the 1910s. Now a venue for jazz performances, the historic building hosts music and dance shows for art enthusiasts in the community. 

“When I talk about her often, I say she was a philanthropist and entrepreneur; a trailblazer, a mother, a friend,” Susan Hall Dotson, African American collections curator at the Indiana Historical Society, said. “There’s still a footprint of her existence. The theater is part of her legacy.”

Walker, whose life inspired the Netflix series Self-Made, frequented theaters to view silent films, Dotson said. One day, when she was overcharged for being Black, she set a goal to build her own theater so that Black people wouldn’t have to continue experiencing the “indignity” of being charged more and told where to sit. Walker purchased the land, and though she never got to see the project through, the theater was built in her honor by her daughter and only child, A’Lelia Walker. 

Completed in 1927, the Walker building first became the base and manufacturing plant of Madam C. J. Walker Hair Care and Beauty Products, and was also home to the Walker Beauty College, which trained thousands of Walker agents. Since then, the theater has remained a versatile community resource; it has since housed a pharmacy, restaurant and ballroom. 

Image courtesy of Nyttend, 2010, via Wikimedia Commons.

Walker traveled much in her life, moving from Louisiana to Vicksburg, Mississippi, as well as St. Louis, Denver and finally Pittsburgh, where she opened a small foundry to produce her products and beauty college. 

In the end, however, it was Indianapolis that caught her eye. The city was experiencing a period of economic expansion, and Walker’s decision to make a home for her product line in Indianapolis would lead her to to generate the majority of her wealth there. 

“It’s the crossroads of America. All the trains Midwest — you can get north, south, east and west to sell her wares. And she could get in her car or get on the train to go do said business, then she was traveling abroad, as well,” Dotson said. “It was ripe for the picking, I guess, logistically for business. The people she met were warm and inviting and welcoming.”

Against the backdrop of the Jim Crow era, the early 20th century was not particularly welcoming to women in business, especially Black women. White women dominated hair companies at the time, and Walker was competing with no formal education behind her.

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture via Creative Commons.

Walker turned instead to her own experiences to qualify her for product industry success. She suffered from a scalp ailment that caused her hair loss in the 1890s, and after experimenting in her kitchen with store products and homemade remedies, Walker created a scalp conditioning and remedial formula. Utilizing her experience as a sales agent for a Black female entrepreneur who made hair products, Annie Malone, Walker founded her own business and began selling Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.

Walker knew what it was like to work a demanding job out of necessity. Before she was an entrepreneur, she worked as a laundress. According to Dotson, she likely had to fetch and boil the water, make soap, hand-wash heavy woolen and cotton clothes and iron them. Giving back to Black women, whose entire lives would be in jobs like this, was important to her, Dotson said. 

Even when Walker threw parties, she displayed her gratitude to the Black community by hiring Black workers like musicians and dressmakers, making sure they all made more than they would if they were housekeepers and other types of domestic workers.

“She created jobs for women,” Dotson said. “And she recognized that women, particularly Black women, were in need of work, in need of earning an income. And most of the incomes that we were earning were from meager, menial jobs.”

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

Indianapolis is now home to the Madam Walker Legacy Center, which commemorates her life and success. Located in the Walker Theatre, a building listed on the register of National Historic Landmarks, the center is a non-profit organization that serves the Indianapolis community by offering cultural education, promoting social justice and supporting entrepreneurship. 

Just as it was a gathering place for Indiana Avenue’s historic African American community from the 1920s to 1950s, the building continues to foster community today.

“The linchpin of her story here in Indianapolis is the Madam Walker Legacy Center,” Nate Swick, senior communications manager for Visit Indy, said. “[The center] is in this historic Black neighborhood and, looking back at that time, that was the place to be in Indianapolis, looking at all the shops and restaurants and jazz clubs and so many cool things that happened on that corridor. This is the biggest remaining building on that stretch. And so being able to keep that legacy and paying homage to what was, while looking ahead at what the future holds for both Indianapolis and her, just where she came from, I think is very important.”

But Walker’s legacy can be found elsewhere across the city, as well. Two murals, one at the Indianapolis International Airport and another at the Alexander Hotel, showcase Walker through public art. The Center for Black Literature and Culture at the Indianapolis Public Library also hosts an artistic tribute to Walker’s impact. Various restaurants around the city also have dishes or drinks named after her, as is the case at the Alexander Hotel bar. 

The diversity of these tributes to Walker keep people interested in her story and in learning about what she means to Indianapolis, Swick said.

Walker’s legacy is as much defined by her activism as her entrepreneurship, Dotson said. Before her economic success, as an orphan and widowed young mother, Walker prioritized community service. After her business took off, Walker became the largest private donor to the Senate YMCA and donated $5,000 to the NAACP’s movement against lynching, among other contributions. She was also active in networks uniting her with other generous Black women, like the National Association of Colored Women.

Even after her death in 1919, Walker continued this virtue of gift-giving through her estate by donating to organizations that furthered the causes of education, social services and civil rights, according to Tyrone McKinley Freeman, associate professor of philanthropic studies and Glenn Family Chair in Philanthropy at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Freeman wrote a book on Walker’s philanthropy and how it defied the Jim Crow era, “Madam C. J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy during Jim Crow.”

“She also left behind resources to family members and people who worked for her company as a show of gratitude as well, which was also important in this Jim Crow context, so she could help African Americans develop economic pathways for financial sustainability,” Freeman said.

Walker invested in the long-term fight for civil rights by leaving behind resources for organizations like the NAACP and Black institutions. Walker viewed herself as a “race woman,” placing her among various Black men and women at the turn of the 20th century dedicated to ending racism and sexism while being supportive of the Black race, Freeman said. 

According to Freeman, the reason Walker was so philanthropic was her religious devotion as an active member of the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, her desire to give back to the Black community and her fight against the interconnected systems of racism and sexism. Freeman said she practiced a form of generosity that was very common among Black women, but that she was able to amplify because of the international profile she developed.

Academics in Indianapolis acknowledge Walker’s legacy by making her a regular part of curriculums, Freeman said. It is common for students to take field trips to the Legacy Center and the Indiana Historical Society, which has an exhibit on Walker at the factory where she established and grew her beauty product empire. 

The Indiana Historical Society has over 40,000 original scans of business documents from Walker and from her business, dating from 1910 to the 1980s, Dotson said.

“The Indiana Historical Society files Madam Walker’s papers and her papers remain some of the most used resources and collections at the Historical Society,” Freeman said. “She’s very much a part of the zeitgeist here.”

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