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  • Madam C. J. Walker's Gospel of Giving: Black Women's Philanthropy during Jim Crow by T. M. Freeman
  • Audrey Thomas McCluskey (bio)
Freeman, T. M. Madam C. J. Walker's Gospel of Giving: Black Women's Philanthropy during Jim Crow. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2020. 304 pp. Paperback: $24.95. ISBN 9780252043451.

Emerging from the dashed hopes of the post Civil War Reconstruction period and into the pit of racial animus that defined the Jim Crow racial social order, African Americans were relegated to a caste of exclusion and persecution. In response, Black women fortified themselves for battle. No, not with weapons of war. Nor did they seek confrontation with white power, if it could be avoided. What they did was organize locally and nationally in their schools, churches, and clubs, and depended upon each other for benevolence and uplift.

Into this phalanx of female powered activism entered a young woman—Sara Breedlove (1867–1919)—who escaped deep poverty in Louisiana and Mississippi cotton fields and washboards to incorporate that ethic into her rise as a businesswoman. In the process, she re-invented herself and set in motion a "trajectory of triumph" for herself and her people through targeted philanthropy.

Black women's giving of themselves and their hard-earned resources is often undervalued in the historical record. That premise underscores what Tyrone McKinley Freeman, an assistant professor of Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University in Indianapolis, attempts in this compact, well-researched book. He places Black women's "gospel of giving" front and center and in so doing, expands the narrow confines of how philanthropy of this period is viewed. His primary subject, Sara Breedlove, became haircare tycoon Madame C.J. Walker, popularly enshrined as the world's first self-made woman millionaire. Freeman's broader project deepens that surface understanding of Walker and focuses on her purpose and intent by excavating documents, including her will and important relationships, for a fuller view of her motivations and methods. Freeman correctly aligns Madam Walker with Black activism of the period, especially Black women's leadership.

Walker, part of an early wave of Black migrants seeking better prospects up North, landed in St. Louis and immediately became involved with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and its extensive women's network. Freeman's presentation of personal details of Walker's life and meteoric rise gets a boost from the foundational work of A'Lelia Bundles', On Her Own Ground, which was the basis for the recent Netflix series, "Self-Made." A value of Freeman's rendering [End Page 92] is in positioning Walker as a "foremother of Black philanthropy," who with her greater means and resources, relied on familiar aspects of her women's self-help networks for guidance. This included her lived experience as an orphan, a young mother living in poverty, and the Jim Crow indignities she experienced. Walker has not gotten due recognition, Freeman argues, in part because her style of philanthropy differed from the white mainstream. Her personal involvement with many recipients of her largess, including women run schools and organizations, was counter to the quasi distance expected between donor and recipient. (Distance was not observed by industrial philanthropists in their relationships with Black male run industrial schools like Tuskegee). Also, rather than philanthropy being a leisure activity as it was among some white women who inherited their fortunes, Walker, along with her trusted and loyal attorney, Freeman Ransom, "Never left the trenches."

Of the six chapters in Freeman's book, chapters four and five are the most original, providing new details about Walker's activist philanthropy and how she deployed her abundant resources. They make the case for Freeman to call his study a "philanthropic biography." These chapters include an in-depth discussion of her will and conclude that Walker, who died at the early age of 51, left more than half of her money to the people and causes she supported during her lifetime. Her sole heir, daughter A'Lelia, inherited the company.

But as Walker's company thrived, she moved to Indianapolis, built a factory and a school for teaching the Walker method of hair care and cosmology, and expanded with...