Beyond our own stories, there is also much to learn from contemporary and historical models of generosity. Dr. Tyrone Freeman rightly points us to Madam C.J. Walker. Underexplored until recently, Walker’s story is a remarkable one. Not only was she the first Black American woman to be a self-made millionaire, but she was also an entrepreneur, social activist, and philanthropist.
As Freeman makes clear, Walker’s giving story is both remarkably simple and complex. One could point to her Christian faith and its clear call to be a cheerful giver, care for the widows and orphans, as well as return a portion of what we have been blessed with back to God. It is clear that Walker’s faith inspired her giving, but few generosity stories are quite so simple. She balanced the complexities of philanthropy and charity, working both for long-term social change as well as meeting immediate needs. As an early social entrepreneur, she not only made charitable donations but also investments fostering other black women to become successful businesswomen. And she was forging her own path all along the way with few models to follow.
Yet, Freeman also makes clear, Walker was not doing this work from a blank slate. Her moral imagination was shaped by the institutions and communities of which she was a part. Chief among these was the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Surely founder Richard Allen and other pastors played a role in her thinking, but it was more likely the churchwomen and their missionary societies that shaped Walker. It was the schoolteachers, washerwomen, and other local ladies that supported her and her family when they first arrived in St. Louis. And the AME’s Mite Missionary Societies that shaped Walker were not simply offering handouts to those in need. They demonstrated how Black religious women were creating their own alternate power structures necessary in the midst of Jim Crow.
Perhaps today too, we must not forget the power of religious traditions and the agency of these institutions and communities to shape philanthropic imagination. Of course, Walker illustrates there is rarely just a single influence shaping our stories. Walker’s story was a melding of old and new, sacred and secular, supporting local social uplift while fighting internationally for racial and gender justice. As our own religions institutions evolve in facing current challenges such as rising disaffiliation and declines in volunteering and giving as well as the current crises of public health and racial injustice, what can stories like Walker’s teach us about our own efforts to foster generosity? I think the answer is clear: quite a lot.
What struck you about the moral imagination shaping Walker’s philanthropy?
What contemporary or historical figures may serve as a guide for your own giving?