Portrait of black entrepreneur who became America’s first self-made millionaire shines light on strength of African American women’s historical approach to giving and caring for others
Groundbreaking research by Tyrone McKinley Freeman, Ph.D., on the philanthropy of Madam C.J. Walker, a black entrepreneur who became America’s first self-made woman millionaire, has been honored with a top national award for outstanding scholarship. Freeman is assistant professor of philanthropic studies and director of undergraduate programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
The Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action selected Freeman as the recipient of the 2016 Gabriel G. Rudney Memorial Award for Outstanding Dissertation in Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research.
Freeman’s research is the first in-depth scholarship on Walker’s philanthropy, what motivated it and its impact. In honoring his work, the awards committee said it “posits a rich and nuanced position of black female giving in the first half of the 20th Century.”
“Madam C.J. Walker was not just a wealthy entrepreneur who also happened to give to charity. She was a major philanthropist of the early twentieth century for whom giving was a central way of living and being from her earliest days,” Freeman said. “Her approach to charitable giving challenges our ideas about what counts as philanthropy and how it should be done. She also provides a window into the long-standing, robust and ubiquitous practices of everyday giving by African American women across history, regardless of how much money they may have.”
The child of former slaves, Walker worked as a laundress before she founded a hair care and beauty products manufacturing company and incorporated philanthropy into her business operations. Her company was both a commercial and philanthropic venture charged with making money and doing good works to advance African Americans’ social and political progress long before terms like corporate giving and social entrepreneurship became popular.
Walker directed her giving to black social service and educational causes important to her business. With racial uplift and independence for black women as her guiding philosophies, she mobilized her national army of tens of thousands of sales agents into benevolent associations and charged them with selling hair care products and giving to charity in their local communities.
Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and biographer A’Lelia Bundles said, “For those of us who write biography and history, there is nothing more satisfying than to have another author build upon one's work in new and creative ways. Through the years, I have shared my research with many students and scholars, but Tyrone McKinley Freeman truly has taken some of the seeds I planted and created blossoms of intellectual inquiry about Madam C.J. Walker's role as a philanthropist and educator that I had not imagined.”
Oscar-winning actor Octavia Spencer recently signed on to produce and star in a television series based on Bundles’ biography, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.
“It is a tremendous honor to have my work recognized in this fashion by my peers and field,” Freeman said. “I am grateful to ARNOVA, my dissertation committee chair, Nancy Robertson, committee members, colleagues and many others who have supported this work.”
About the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy
The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is dedicated to improving philanthropy to improve the world by training and empowering students and professionals to be innovators and leaders who create positive and lasting change in the world. The school offers a comprehensive approach to philanthropy through its academic, research and international programs and through The Fund Raising School, Lake Institute on Faith & Giving and the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. Follow us on Twitter @IUPhilanthropy and “Like” us on Facebook.