Self Made: Community, the Color Line, and Women Working for Madam Walker
This weekend Netflix debuts its series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, and while the series inevitably takes some liberties with Walker’s historical story it is not at all surprising that generations of people have been fascinated with Walker’s story. Born in the wake of Emancipation in staggering poverty, Walker’s history certainly can be told as an American Dream rags-to-riches story lived by a Black woman who is often referred to as America’s “first Black woman millionaire” (the company echoed that narrative after her death, and that is one thread of the Netflix trailer for Self Made). However, that somewhat one-dimensional focus on wealth risks ignoring Walker’s history of generosity and activism on behalf of and with many African-American women.
Walker moved to Indianapolis in 1910 and was already enormously successful when she rose at the 1912 National Negro Business League convention to proclaim that “I have built my own factory on my own ground, 38 by 208 feet. I employ in that factory seven people, including a bookkeeper, a stenographer, a cook and a house girl. I own my own automobile and runabout.” Yet Walker’s monologue was not simply about her success, instead stressing that “my object in life is not simply to make money for myself or to spend it on myself in dressing or running around in an automobile. But I love to use a part of what I make in trying to help others.”
The tendency to frame Walker’s story as an American Dream narrative has been read its death rites as Walker becomes a nuanced symbol of Black activism, feminism, and philanthropy that touched many more women. The source material for Self Made is A’Lelia Bundles’ biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker. Bundles paints a rich picture of Walker that undoes the self-made entrepreneur story and instead focuses on Walker’s skill building a community of women in the Company. Walker’s philanthropy is the heart of Tyrone McKinley Freeman’s research, which will appear this Fall as Madam C. J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy during Jim Crow. Rather than fixate on Walker’s affluence, Freeman’s research underscores Walker’s philanthropy, activism, and generosity and shifts the Walker narrative to the ways her “race business” supported and fed the ambitions of many African-American women (in fairness to Self Made, it ends with an acknowledgement of that philanthropy and activism).
The Walker Company employed a vast number of women in its Indianapolis factory, and those women shared many of the structural challenges and experiences Walker had lived herself. For instance, Lucy Monroe Flint came to Indianapolis from Louisville in 1912 to work as a stenographer and secretary for the Walker company. Flint probably was the stenographer Walker referred to in her National Negro Business League speech. Like Walker, Flint was born during Reconstruction; Flint was born in Kentucky in about 1869, two years after Walker was born in Louisiana. Flint had been a Louisville teacher before coming to Indianapolis; in 1900 she was living with her two sisters Lula and Pollie in Louisville, where both Lucy and Lula were public school teachers. A 1913 story on Walker indicated that Flint “was for a number of years connected with the foreign mission board of the national Baptist convention,” and she and Walker may have met in Louisville through Walker’s connections in Louisville.
Flint lived at 640 North West Street, Madam Walker’s home in the city’s historically African-American near-Westside until 1916, when Flint moved to a home on Highland Place. Flint clearly shared Walker’s activist interests. For instance, in June 1912 Lucy Flint was among the first members of Indianapolis’ “Colored” Womans Suffrage League, serving as its Secretary. Flint was also active in the “colored branch” of Indianapolis’ YWCA, serving on committees doing regular fundraising for the YWCA. Flint was identified by one source as “the private secretary of Madam C.J. Walker,” and she traveled extensively with Walker between 1912 and 1915. In May 1913, for example, Flint had traveled to Louisville in one of Walker’s cars, with the Indianapolis Recorder reporting that “Madame C J. Walker, accompanied by Misses Lucy Flint, Alice Kelley, Anjetta Breedlove and Miss Wallace of St. Louis made a trip Saturday to Louisville in her new seven passenger touring car, returning on Monday afternoon.”
In February 1915 the Recorder reported that Flint had recovered from an extended illness but was visiting family in Louisville for a month. Flint appeared to have recovered in February 1916, when the Recorder reported that Madam Walker was leaving the city and moving to New York. The newspaper observed that the Indianapolis factory remained in the “capable hands of Miss Kelly, forelady; Miss Lucy Flint, bookkeeper; Misses Violet Davis and Marguerite Overton, stenographers and F. B. Ransom, attorney.” Yet in August Flint was ill for just a few days before her death from peritonitis on August 16, 1916. In September her family indicated that Flint’s pledge to donate $25 a year to the “colored branch” of the YWCA would be honored despite her death.
In the wake of Flint’s death one of the women who would become the heart of the firm was Violet Davis. Davis was born in about 1897 in Birmingham, Alabama to Major Wylie Davis and Cornelia Davis. Violet appeared in the Eckstein Norton Institute’s Memorial Day program in April 1911 as an instrumental soloist, and Davis remembered in 1979 that Walker visited the university “a few weeks before commencement.” Eckstein Norton Professor Alice Kelly knew Davis’ mother and would be joining Madam Walker in Indianapolis in Fall 1911, and Kelly recommended Davis to Walker. Davis attended an Alabama business college in preparation for joining the Walker company, and she same to Indianapolis in April 1914 and attended a ball at the Pythian Temple. Davis met the mail carrier for 640 North West Street that night, David Reynolds, and Violet Davis would marry Reynolds in June 1919. In October 1914 Davis appeared at an Indianapolis meeting of the “Ethical Culture Society” and provided an “instrumental selection.” In 1915 Davis was living at Madam Walker’s North West Street home and working as a stenographer for the company. Violet Davis Reynolds would remain with the company for 68 years until her retirement in 1982 as the company’s Executive Director. Violet Davis Reynolds died in May 1991.
At Violet Davis’ 1911 commencement, “Prof. A.P. Kelley” appeared on the Eckstein Norton faculty. Born in Mobile, Alabama in about 1871, Kelly graduated from Kentucky’s State Colored University in June 1889, delivering the salutatorian lecture “Surmounting Difficulties.” Kelly received her Master’s degree in May 1892 and began teaching Latin at Eckstein-Norton in about 1900. Eckstein Norton was a segregated Black university in Cane Spring, Kentucky that opened in 1890, and in 1907 Alice Kelly was one of seven faculty at the small industrial arts, literature, and Biblical school that eventually merged with Lincoln University in 1912. Alice P. Kelly would be among Walker’s closest confidants, who she was working for by December 1911, when she organized a reception at Madam Walker’s home with Lucy Flint. Kelly accompanied Walker on constant business trips at which Walker delivered lectures on the company and products, with a 1913 newspaper account referring to Kelly as Walker’s “indefatigable traveling companion.” Kelly would become the forewoman of the Walker factory after Madam Walker’s death in May 1919, presiding over the company during the construction and opening of the Walker Theater in 1928. Kelly was still working for the Walker Company when she died in April 1931.
One of the most fascinating stories of a Walker Company employee was of Madam Walker’s cook Parthenia Rollins. Rollins was born in Kentucky around 1850, where she was the captive of Edward B. DuVall. In December 1937 Rollins was one of 21 Indianapolis residents interviewed for the Federal Writers Project Slave Narratives. The two-page summary of the interview described several horrific experiences from Rollins’ childhood enslaved in Kentucky, ending with Rollins acknowledging that she witnessed cruelty that “would make your hair stand on ends.” The interview summary indicated the inexpressible suffering at the heart of Rollins’ experiences nearly 80 years before, noting that Rollins “said she could hardly talk of the happenings of the early days, because of the awful things her folks had to go through.”
Rollins lived in Kentucky 40 years after Emancipation, and she came to Indianapolis around 1908 with a daughter, son, and grandson. She likely met Madam Walker soon after Walker moved to Indianapolis around April 1910, and when the census keeper recorded Rollins’ household on April 21, 1910 it recorded Rollins as a cook for a private family. When Madam Walker rose at the 1912 National Negro Business League convention, the cook she referred to as her employee was certainly Rollins.
Walker purchased the home at 640 North West Street in May 1911, and a housewarming with 100 guests was held at the end of June 1911. Rollins almost certainly was cooking for Walker and her guests at many of these events, and in 1979 Violet Davis Reynolds remembered that “Parthenia Rollins of Hopkinsville, Ky., was housekeeper for Madam, and she made special pastries and wonderful Dixie (yeast) biscuits for guests. I can still taste those biscuits with homemade butter.” When Walker left Indianapolis in 1916 Rollins’ family moved into a newly built home on a property Walker had purchased at 810 Camp Street several years before. However, in June 1917 Rollins apparently complained about raises in the company, and Walker wrote company lawyer Freeman Ransom and indicated that Rollins “has the vilest tongue of any woman … I have ever come in contact with. If she does not stop talking I am going to fire her myself without giving her anything.” Rollins and her family would nonetheless live on Camp Street the remainder of Rollins’ life, and she would remain on Walker Company payrolls. The fourth item in Walker’s 1919 will stipulated that “Parthenia Rawlins [sic] be paid five dollars a week for the rest of her natural life, and that sufficient money be set aside for her burial and funeral expenses.” Parthenia Rollins died in October, 1952, when the Indianapolis Recorder placed her age at 107 and indicated she “lived in her native Kentucky during the Civil War and remembered many stirring events of the war. She had heard Abraham Lincoln speak on several occasions.”
The network of Walker employees and agents reached well beyond Indianapolis. In 1917 Alice C. Burnett of Jackson Mississippi signed a contract as a Walker agent, and Burnett was a tireless salesperson and instructor who traveled over much of the nation teaching the “Walker way.” In March 1917 Walker wrote Ransom that Burnett had an $1,100 debt on her home she could not pay if she was traveling, and Walker asked Ransom if “I could spare the money” (it is not clear if Ransom supported the expense). In June 1930 Burnett presented the company’s movie “From Cabin to Castle” in Salem M.E. Church in New York, part of a series of presentations she did of the Walker biographical film, which established some of the company’s romanticized history of its founder: “How one may be born in a tiny log cabin in the backwoods and yet, through perseverance, hard work and a determination to succeed, amass wealth and realize the comforts of a luxurious mansion … has been so graphically told that this film goes down as one of the big object lessons of the day.” Burnett moved to New York City by 1940, where she was Vice-President of the company and died in 1946. Pedro de la Cruz immigrated to the United States in 1919 from Puerto Rico, and he was working for the Walker Company the next year as an interpreter. The company did conduct business in the Spanish-speaking world, and de la Cruz may have been among the employees managing that trade. Harry D. Evans signed a contract with the Walker Company in October 1919, a year after he had written Ransom complaining about racism in the military and asking the lawyer if he could intervene on the behalf of the African-American soldiers. Evans became the company’s advertising manager and traveled to Cuba in 1927, probably representing the company. In the early 1930’s he gave presentations on behalf of the company and presented its “From Cabin to Castle” movie.
Self Made inevitably tells the Madam Walker story in an approachable narrative, and while it takes a few liberties with Walker’s biography they are rich entry points for those who want to know Walker’s broader history. Walker’s history is perhaps more about the community of people she encouraged than it is about her entrepreneurial success, and it is a narrative about a legion of ambitious, disciplined, and thoughtful women who are mostly anonymous to mainstream histories. The story of all these women and men who worked for the Walker Company and the scores of people touched by her business is ideally what Self Made will illuminate.
July 17, 1915 Walker Company Payroll image Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society
Alice Burnett undated image Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society
Alice Kelly undated image Madam C.J. Walker Supplemental Collection, Indiana Historical Society.
Undated Walker Payroll image Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society
Violet Davis Reynolds, circa 1950 Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society
Walker in Car, circa 1912 Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society