From Laundress to Business Mogul: Madam C. J. Walker relied on other Black institutions and her own brazen determination to become one of the richest businesswomen in America.

AuthorHopewell, D'Juan
PositionErica L. Ball's "Madam C.J. Walker: The Making of an American Icon"

Madam C. J. Walker:

The Making of an American Icon

by Erica L. Ball

Rowman and Littlefield Publishers,

166 pp.

One hundred years ago this May, a white mob massacred hundreds of Black people in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The 35-square-block district had been a thriving Black business center--so much so that it became known as Black Wall Street. Black entrepreneurs, locked out of other parts of Tulsa by Jim Crow laws, ran luxury hotels, insurance companies, grocery stores, transportation services, newspapers, and theaters in the community. A wealthy Black landowner, O. W. Gurley, gave loans to residents who wanted to start their own businesses. Black prosperity begat more Black prosperity.

But it also led to white resentment. A false allegation that a Black man had raped a white woman activated white locals. They surged through the streets, shooting Black people on sight, looting Black homes, and bombing more than 600 Black-owned businesses. Over the course of two days, nearly the entire district was burned to the ground.

Entrepreneurship has fueled progress for Black Americans, growing the middle class and funding the fight for racial equality. But it has also been met with waves of devastation. Black farming languished in the 20th century, in part because the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against Black farmers when assessing loan applications. The construction of the interstate system in the 1950s and '60s wiped out Black business districts in cities across America. The federal government's retreat from enforcing antitrust laws starting in the late 1970s led to the collapse of small Black-owned firms across the country. The Great Recession in 2008 set back another generation of Black entrepreneurs.

Now, Black business owners are being wiped out again, this time by a virus. Black entrepreneurs disproportionately run businesses in retail or hospitality, two sectors that immediately took a hit when states implemented social distancing measures. Between February and April 2020, 40 percent of Black-owned firms closed, according to analysis from Robert Fairlie of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Seventeen percent of white-owned companies closed during the same period.

The current struggle for Black entrepreneurship makes a new book chronicling the life of Madam C. J. Walker especially relevant. Walker, a Black woman who built a beauty product empire in the early 1900s, became one of the richest businesswomen in America. The Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company sold hair and skin products and, at its peak, employed nearly 25,000 agents to sell them throughout the Americas.

The lingering question for scholars--and, more urgently, for Black entrepreneurs--is how Walker managed to do it. Her life is the subject of several biographies, academic lectures, children's books, and even a Netflix miniseries. The most recent addition to that literature comes from Erica Ball, the department chair of Black studies at Occidental College, with Madam C. J. Walker, a deeply researched book that situates Walker's story just one generation removed from chattel slavery, in turn-of-the-century America, when Black people sought to renegotiate their contract with society. It also illuminates her business strategies. Walker built her empire in coalition with other Black institutions and used her working-class background and her philanthropy to connect with the Black masses, not just the Black elite. What she may have lacked in pedigree, she made up for...

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