Miniseries about Madam C.J. Walker Leaves Out Philanthropic Legacy

Miniseries about Madam C.J. Walker Leaves Out Philanthropic Legacy

Octavia Spencer, left, stars in this rags-to-riches tale, along with Blair Underwood.
Amanda Matlovich/Netflix

The Netflix series “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” brings to life part of a fascinating rags-to-riches tale I’ve been researching for the past 10 years.

Walker, widely documented to have been America’s first self-made female millionaire, made her fortune building an Indianapolis-based beauty products company that served black women across the U.S. and overseas. Today it offers a product line through Sephora.

Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer stars in the miniseries about the African American entrepreneur originally named Sarah Breedlove. Born shortly after emancipation in 1867 on a cotton plantation in Louisiana to a formerly enslaved family, she later adapted the initials and last name of her third husband – played by Blair Underwood in the series. The show imagines Walker’s struggles and successes in a dramatic reinterpretation of the historical record.

I’ve been studying Walker’s archival collections for my upcoming book “Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy during Jim Crow” and speaking about her to audiences around the country for years. I screened the series with great anticipation of how her lifelong generosity and activism would be portrayed in this account that “Indianapolis Monthly” described as having “fictional characters, invented moments, and a few surreal sequences.”

Her philanthropic legacy didn’t make the cut – aside from a few visual footnotes just before final credits roll. Those footnotes touch on her charitable giving to black colleges, social services and activism with the NAACP.

While viewers will enjoy the series, I want them to learn that Walker didn’t just live a life of hard-won opulence. She exemplified black women’s generosity. Her philanthropy and activism imbued every aspect of her daily life. “I am not and never have been ‘close-fisted,’ for all who know me will tell you that I am a liberal hearted woman,” Walker told the audience of the 1913 National Negro League Business meeting sponsored by prominent black leader Booker T. Washington.

Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer stars as Madam C.J. Walker in the Netflix miniseries ‘Self Made.’

More than money

Walker distinguished herself on a philanthropic landscape dominated by white people. Men like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie turned to large-scale philanthropy after spending their lives accumulating wealth. In contrast, Walker’s giving began in earnest when she was a poor, young, widowed mother struggling in St. Louis. She gave along the way from what she had, rather than waiting.

Madam C. J. Walker was the nation’s first self-made female millionaire. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

She had much in common with other black churchwomen, club women, educators and activists. Like Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Ida B. Wells-Barnett – and tens of thousands of other working and middle class black women – Walker embodied a versatile generosity that sought to meet communal needs and topple widespread discrimination.


Walker was a highly prized donor in the black community. Constantly solicited, she gave money to black-serving organizations across the Midwest and the South.

The Netflix miniseries briefly references her gifts to social services. She supported organizations like Flanner House in Indianapolis, which helped African Americans get jobs, an education and childcare. She made sure that poor families could eat at Christmastime.

The “Indianapolis Freeman,” a black newspaper, reported in 1915 how her company’s office resembled a grocery store due to all the gift baskets that were filled with food. In 1918, she gave US$500 to support the National Association of Colored Women’s campaign to purchase and preserve Cedar Hill, home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, which still stands today in Washington, D.C.

Walker lacked formal education but she was a lifelong learner who donated thousands of dollars to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and other black schools.

She also patronized the arts, supporting Indianapolis painters such as William Edouard Scott and John Wesley Hardrick, whom she wanted to help gain national stature as an artist.

Walker, second from left, and Booker T. Washington (holding his hat) at the opening of a black YMCA in Indianapolis that she supported with her own money and fundraising efforts. Madam C. J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society, CC BY-ND

Time and talent

In addition, Walker belonged to important networks of women that were advancing the cause of freedom from the Jim Crow era’s racism and sexism.

The entrepreneur made her fortune by creating hair care products for African American women. Madam C. J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society, CC BY-NC-ND

She helped the poor through the Mite Missionary Society of St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Louis. She supported the National Association of Colored Women, which provided educational and social services to black communities around the country, and advocated for changing public policies.


Walker also expressed her generosity by using her voice to speak out against the injustices of Jim Crow discrimination and oppression. She drew attention to sick and injured black soldiers during World War I by visiting and entertaining them at military camps in the Midwest. To black and white audiences, she spoke out publicly about black soldiers’ patriotic sacrifice overseas for freedoms denied them at home, and her full expectation that such freedoms be granted upon their return.

At her first national convention of her sales agents held in Philadelphia, she and her agents collectively raised their voices through a telegram against lynching sent to President Woodrow Wilson. She wanted the government to make lynching a federal crime.

Walker also advocated for temperance, women’s suffrage, female empowerment and civil rights. She secured a pardon for a black man jailed for an alleged murder in Mississippi. And she shared her own encouraging story of success with audiences around the country as an affirmative testimony of the value and dignity of black life amid pervasive hateful and hurtful Jim Crow stereotypes.

‘Netflix and engage’

I hope that many viewers who see “Self-made” and feel inspired by Walker’s story consider a new way to binge on TV: “Netflix and Engage.”

The miniseries is based on a book by A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter. Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Learn more about Madam Walker’s story by reading the biographical account written by her great-great-granddaughter – the journalist, A’Lelia Bundles – which inspired the series. Explore other chapters in black women’s history.

Surf Madam Walker’s electronic archive of 40,000 items at the Indiana Historical Society. Consider her influence on the musical and fashion icon Rihanna and today’s beauty culture industry. Visit her company’s former headquarters in Indianapolis. Admire the architecture of her New York mansion where women of color will be trained to become entrepreneurs.

Give to charity. March for a cause.

Like Walker, you may make a difference in someone’s life.

[You’re too busy to read everything. We get it. That’s why we’ve got a weekly newsletter. Sign up for good Sunday reading. ]The Conversation

Tyrone McKinley Freeman, Assistant Professor of Philanthropic Studies, Director of Undergraduate Programs, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, IUPUI

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When The House Folds

Fans of political drama certainly have gotten their plates full over the last few years. In addition to award-winning, critically acclaimed series like The Wire and The West Wing, viewers have been treated to healthy doses of political intrigue on the short-lived Political Animals, The Chicago Code, and most recently, Boss, the Kelsey Grammer vehicle.

Into the fray comes Kevin Spacey in the Netflix original series, House of Cards, which debuted last Friday in an experimental format. The early buzz is due to its novelty as the first original series produced for Netflix, but most of the critical acclaim is aimed squarely at Spacey himself for his bracing, arresting performance.

Spacey’s protagonist, Francis Underwood, is the kind of charismatic, calculating, conniving antihero that audiences can’t avert their gaze from, even when he’s doing something as viscerally disturbing as [minor spoiler alert] euthanizing an injured dog. As Underwood, Spacey fills the screen with an endless string of meetings and phone conversations with theWashingtonelite, solving problems, currying favor, and dispensing axioms left and right.

Which is to say, he’s a classic Kevin Spacey character. But there’s another figure that Spacey’s Underwood resembles – that of a pastor. The resemblance grows even clearer during the third of episode of House of Cards, when [again, MINOR SPOILER] Francis Underwood is forced to travel to his home district in South Carolina to address a local tragedy and ends up speaking at a church in the area.

Part of Underwood’s appeal is his habit of breaking the fourth wall by looking directly into the camera and telling the audience his thoughts, which often differ dramatically to whatever he’s just said to another character. So the scene where he does this from the church lectern, where he totally contradicts himself in the middle of an emotionally-charged quasi-sermon, is supposed to highlight Underwood’s depravity by juxtaposing his hypocrisy against the moral uprightness of the church.

 Unfortunately, that scene – minus a few Hollywood theatrical touches – plays out in churches all acrossAmericaevery Sunday. Except that in real life, the churches are just as complicit in the charade.

In his blog, Dr. Paul Metzger of Multnomah Biblical Seminary recently contrasted the fervor with which evangelicals tend to oppose evolution with the tacit acceptance they tend to give free-market economics, despite their being two different sides of the same ideological coin (according to Metzger, they’re both about survival of the fittest). This kind of bias creates a cultural blind spot, which invites certain pastors to speak out in favor of intelligent design in the classroom while remaining woefully silent on loopholes in the American tax code that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.

(Then again, maybe we should be grateful for the silence, since some pastors clearly don’t understand the real-world ramifications of certain economic policies. Yes, I’m talking to you, Applebee’s pastor lady.)

The truth is, sometimes pastors make decisions for less-than-Godly reasons, and the faithful in the pews sometimes have trouble discerning when and why. In this scene, Spacey’s Underwood ends up quoting Proverbs 3:5, but it’s clear that his oratory is motivated more by political reasons than by any desire to honor God or share His truth with people.

And this wasn’t even during an election year.

House of Cards gets its name not only from its original British source material, but from the idea that our political process is effective only insomuch as people allow themselves to be shielded from the details of how it works. Otherwise, the facade is pierced and the whole thing comes falling down.

The same can be said about the church. For decades, many of our churches have been places where the primary motivation for showing up is neither worship nor Word, but to ascend the various echelons of social respectability. As such, it became easier and more popular to apply social pressure to overcome secularists who resist the church’s public agenda, rather than genuinely caring about them and allowing the Holy Spirit to use us to break down their defenses through other, non-activist means.

As long as it works, everyone’s fine – but anytime there’s a shift in the prevailing sense of morality, the whole thing falls apart.

The irony is, we revert to these top-down techniques because in many ways, they work. It’s a lot easier to demonize your opponents via press release than it is to invite your political opponent over for dinner and actually listen to what they have to say. Fortunately, people like Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy and gay activist Shane Windmeyer have proven that it’s not impossible. But still, it’s the exception to the rule.

After all, Underwood’s Machiavellian machinations don’t just make for good television – they’re compelling because they’re effective. For men and women like Francis Underwood, that’s how things get done in Washington. But it doesn’t have to be this way in the church. It really doesn’t. And even if, as the more cynical among us might argue, it is this way in the church and nothing will change anytime soon, then let’s at least let’s have someone come up with a decent scripted drama about it. And no, the pastor’s-wives-reality-show The Sisterhood doesn’t count.