Tyrone McKinley Freeman is an award-winning scholar and teacher who serves as associate professor of philanthropic studies and director of undergraduate programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Previously, he was a professional fundraiser for social services, community development, and higher education organizations. His research focuses on the history of African American philanthropy, philanthropy in communities of color, the history of American philanthropy, and philanthropy and fundraising in higher education.
Cesie: Madam C.J. Walker seems to be having a “moment” with your book and the Netflix mini-series about her life. What drew you to invest time into researching Madam Walker?
Dr. Freeman: I am the son, grandson, nephew and cousin of Black Baptist preachers and First Ladies. I grew up in the Black Church, and first learned about Madam C.J. Walker in Sunday School and other educational programming while growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. She’s been a part of my imagination ever since. She became known as America’s first self-made female millionaire and that part of her story drives a lot of the public’s interest in her. When she started her beauty company and generated a significant amount of wealth from it as a Black woman at the height of Jim Crow segregation in the 1910s, she did something remarkable. She was also very generous. That part of her story was not really a primary focus in the various writings about her. To me it is very important, and I wanted to know more about it. Why did she give? What did she give? Where did this desire to give come from? These questions drove my interest in her and my desire to write this book.
The timing with the Netflix series was coincidental. Her family has been trying to get a movie made about her for more than 20 years. There were many fits and starts during that time. It just so happened that this time, it worked out with Netflix. It speaks to the enduring power of her story. Since her death in 1919, every generation has been fascinated by her story and did something with it like produce songs, novels and plays inspired by her life. Now we get to add the movie series to this legacy. Although the series did not engage her generosity as a significant part of the plot, it was an essential part of her daily life. So, it was a great pleasure for me to research and tell the important story of her giving to more fully account for it as part of her legacy.
How long did you work on this project? What was your experience of delving into Madam Walker’s life?
In total, the project took a decade. It started out as my doctoral dissertation. I set it aside for a while and then began more research to expand it into a story worthy of a book for the general public. It was important to me to tell this story in an accessible way that would resonate with religious readers of diverse backgrounds because Madam Walker was a woman of faith. The African Methodist Episcopal Church figured very largely in her life.
Additionally, she was a part of some very important historical moments and movements in American history including the fight against Jim Crow racial segregation and the lynching of Black people. She advocated for women’s voting rights and for Black soldiers during WWI. She was so patriotic that despite Jim Crow’s racism and sexism toward her and her community, she purchased war bonds to help America finance WWI. She moved in similar circles with other leading figures in American history such as W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ida B. Wells. I spent a significant amount of time in her archival records in Indianapolis and in related collections around the country. I retraced her steps and explored her relationships with various people, places, and organizations to get to the heart of the story of her philanthropic giving.
I also entered into community and conversation with Black women’s historians who had written about Madam Walker and Black women, more generally, as important historical actors in American history. I learned so much from them and their scholarship that better prepared me to engage Walker’s story and contribute new understanding about her dynamic life.
What were one or two of the biggest surprises you uncovered in your research?
One is personal and one is more scholarly. Personally, I was surprised to see the connection between Madam C.J. Walker and the women in my family. My mother, grandmothers, great-grandmother, godmothers, aunts, cousins, sister, wife and daughter—and for that matter, most of the women in the churches where I grew up. Throughout their lives, they were all actively serving others in the church and in the larger community in ways like Walker. Seeing Walker in them and them in Walker resonated with me deeply. I had taken their behavior for granted. It was so ubiquitous. But as I looked through the historical archive and saw it in Walker’s life and in the women around Walker over 150 years ago, it assumed new meaning for me. It became historically grounded and connected in a powerful way. It’s a significant historic legacy that made me even more honored to share through the book. It’s something that readers of faith constantly report back to me as well after reading the book.
On a scholarly note, I was surprised to learn about the significance of her philanthropy to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. Walker died in 1919. During her lifetime, she generously funded organizations like the NAACP, historically Black colleges, and social service agencies to meet the needs of Black people in the early 1900s. But she also left behind a will through which she donated money and other resources through her estate to the NAACP and other groups. In early 1950s—more than 30 years after her death—the NAACP credited Walker’s generosity with enabling it to survive the Great Depression and continue what would become the modern Civil Rights Movement that eventually defeated Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s. That is powerful! She wanted to defeat Jim Crow segregation during her lifetime. She couldn’t. But she was forward-looking and played a role in its eventual demise several decades later which is a gift to all Americans.
What did you learn about generosity from Madam Walker?
Unlike her contemporary philanthropist peers, like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Walker did not spend her life accumulating wealth and then later in old age become focused on redistributing that wealth to others through philanthropy. She gave along the way. She didn’t wait. She gave what she could and gave more as she acquired more. She started this practice in her early 20s when she was poor and struggling. It is a very different model of philanthropy and one that is more accessible and meaningful to the average everyday person.
Today, we tend to only think about philanthropy in terms of what millionaires and billionaires do with their money. Walker’s story shows us that it is not about wealth but rather it’s about generosity. Few of us will ever rise to the level of wealth of the billionaires to be able to follow their model at that scale. But each one of us can give from what we currently have to be helpful to others and gradually increase and expand our giving over time as we acquire more resources—whether time, talent or treasure. True generosity is about your heart, not your pocketbook or checking account. For readers of faith, it is also about our relationship with God. Few of us will ever be ultra-wealthy, but every one of us can be generous. We simply have to choose it and act upon it. That’s the lesson of Walker’s philanthropic legacy and it resonates with the faith.
Madam Walker grew up in the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church and it was obviously an important part of her life. What about her faith motivated her to be philanthropic?
The AME Church has a long history of activism and engagement in the long struggle for freedom. Its theology recognized the dignity and humanity of Black people, despite Jim Crow’s racist denial of both, and gave Black people a different way to think about themselves and their worthiness of freedom. Additionally, the AME Church was active in building schools, orphanages, and meeting a variety of social, educational, and community needs. It preached the Gospel and lived the Gospel. Being in that kind of environment shaped Walker.
Further, Black women inside the AME Church modeled generosity and community service. They served as an example for Madam Walker when she first converted to the AME Church in her early twenties as a poor, young, orphaned, and widowed mother. Women like Jessie Robinson, who was a leader in St. Paul AME Church in St. Louis where Walker first connected with the AME Church, became important friends and mentors who taught her to give and to serve others. She worked side by side with them doing ministry work feeding the poor and caring for the sick, even when she was poor and in just as much need as those she was learning to serve. She took these Black women’s approach to giving, and later amplified it and put her own stamp on it as she became wealthy and expanded her giving and engagement in leading social issues of her day.
You seem to broaden the definition of philanthropy – that it’s not just about giving away money. Can you expound on that?
One of the most powerful and profound gifts I’ve ever received was the gift of words from elders in my church. Scripture says that death and life are in the power of the tongue. I benefited from many members of my church who shared a positive word with me and spoke positivity into me as a young person growing up. They encouraged me and built me up with their meaningful words to make sure I knew I was loved, I had value, and that God had a plan for me. No matter what the world might say to or about me, they wanted me to know and believe these things deeply in my heart above all else. Because they regularly spoke such things into me, their words affected me profoundly. You can’t deduct that from your taxes, but it is a powerful gift!
Similarly, Walker’s philanthropy involved gifts of money, but, more importantly, it was comprised of other types of gifts that were less quantifiable. She volunteered her time and expertise with organizations, which is a vital form of giving. She used her company to provide opportunity for Black women to support themselves and their families in a segregated and oppressive Jim Crow economy and labor market that did not want them to succeed. She used her voice as a gift, I argue, to speak out on injustices and issues of the day such as lynching and women’s voting rights. All of these gifts were important. All served a purpose in the struggle for freedom. All of them were required. So, when I write about philanthropy in this book, I’m not writing about the idea of the rich helping the poor through money. Walker didn’t start giving after she became wealthy. She gave while she was poor and continued giving across her lifetime. Wealth simply enabled her to do more of what she had already been doing for years. This idea of philanthropy is more accessible and inclusive of the everyday kinds of giving that take place in our homes and communities regardless of wealth.
As you write about Madam Walker, there’s a hint that she believed in the prosperity gospel. Do you think that’s true and if so, how did that ultimately play out in her life?
I do not. She drew inspiration from some Scriptures about giving, such as II Corinthians 9 regarding “cheerful” giving. Her church had very clear teachings about giving as an expression of faith because of God’s generous gift of his only begotten to redeem the earth. But that was not contextualized in the way that the “prosperity gospel” of the late 20th century has been. I think she was a religiously inspired giver who felt a responsibility to God to help her people, and a cultural obligation to her community as a Black woman to do what she could for the benefit of other Black people in an American society that was doing everything it could to denigrate and contain Black communities rather than to build and liberate them.
I was intrigued by the notion that Madam Walker and other Black entrepreneurs believed in “activism as business and business as activism.” Can you talk a little more about that?
Today we think about our society as having three sectors—the private sector, the public or government sector, and the nonprofit sector. Each has its own role in society, and there is some overlap in how they operate. People like Andrew Carnegie used the private sector to make money, and then set up philanthropic foundations in the nonprofit sector to redistribute their wealth to support education, health, etc. For African Americans, the story is different and more complicated. These three sectors have been both friends and foes to African Americans in history.
The U.S. government fully sanctioned and supported slavery and Jim Crow segregation. The private sector discriminated against African Americans in hiring and locked them out of opportunity in labor markets or locked into the most menial positions with little upward mobility. Even the nonprofit sector was complicit as many mainstream nonprofit organizations—including churches, schools, and social service agencies—would not accept or serve black members, students, patients or clients. So African Americans could not count on these sectors to have their best interest at heart. They did not have the luxury of thinking in terms of these separate sectors with separate roles, so when they set up their own institutions, they used them to serve multiple purposes across these roles and sectors because discrimination and oppression were everywhere.
Their churches became not only religious houses of worship, but also centers for education, social services, and cultural programs. Their schools not only provided education but served as community centers and meeting places. This same idea carries over to their businesses. Many Black entrepreneurs during the Jim Crow era felt a responsibility to use their businesses not only to generate wealth for themselves, but to generate opportunity for other Black people and to advocate for freedom and justice. Madam Walker followed suit and used her company as a base for supporting the freedom movement through its support of the NAACP, advocacy against lynching, and provision of jobs and career paths in ways that Jim Crow prohibited. She was very thoughtful and intentional in using her business to better the entire race and not just herself. Today we use words like social entrepreneurship, social impact, corporate social responsibility to communicate similar ideas. Well, she was doing this over 100 years ago before these words became trendy in business schools and in modern business sector.
What can the modern-day church take away from Madam Walker’s story?
Since the book came out, I’ve heard from pastors and churches who have used it to study and explore giving, stewardship and generosity with their members. I did not anticipate that while writing it. But it’s clear to me that Walker’s life demonstrates what faith through generosity looks like. It is the faith in action. Her story can help the modern-day church better understand its responsibility to steward its resources to serve the Kingdom by securing justice and freedom as a demonstration and practice of faith.
Many thanks to Dr. Freeman for giving so generously of his time. I know that you’ll want to read more about the amazing life of Madam C.J. Walker. Be sure to order Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy During Jim Crow.