As we enter Black History Month, it is welcome to see the Indianapolis Star celebrating Madam C.J. Walker. Madam Walker left an enduring legacy of Black entrepreneurship that is one stream, and an important stream, of the African-American experience in the United States.
However, too often the celebration of Black History Month celebrates themes of African American's "pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps" rather than themes of protest and struggle which are much influential overall to the experience of Black folks and working people in the United States.
The story provided to the reader by the IndyStar gave the only pieces of information that the Star felt would be important to know, and which essentially send the message "You think you have it rough, look what she overcame." Of course, there is another anti-working class message: "She got to be a millionaire starting with nothing and against tremendous odds. See what hard work and commitment to capitalism gets you?"
What do we find out from the Indy Star:
- daughter of former slaves
- parents died when she was 7
- husband died when she was 20, leaving her with a 2-year-old daughter
- perfected a formula for straightening the hair of black women (not sure if this is correct)
- employed 20,000 agents
- a self-made millionaire
It must be remembered that Ms. Walker would never have had an opportunity to become an entrepreneur without the tireless work of those who struggled against slavery including Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.
The celebration of capitalism that the IndyStar.com article implies rings hollow today when capitalism as an economic structure is in crisis and working people, and in particular Black and other people of color, struggle to survive.
A woman from the same time period as Ms. Walker but who took a very different path is Mary McLeod Bethune. Borth in 1875, Ms. Bethune was an educator and civil rights leader best known for starting a school for Black students in Florida, the Bethune-Cookman University, and for being an advisor to Franklin D. roosevelt.
Like Ms. Walker, Ms. Bethune was born to parents who had been slaves.
[S]he took an early interest in her own education. With the help of benefactors, Bethune attended college hoping to become a missionary in Africa. When that did not materialize, she started a school for black girls in Daytona Beach. From six students it grew and merged with an institute for black boys and eventually became the Bethune-Cookman School. Its quality far surpassed the standards of education for black students, and rivaled those of white schools. Bethune worked tirelessly to ensure funding for the school, and used it as a showcase for tourists and donors, to exhibit what educated black people could do. She was president of the college from 1923 to 1942 and 1946 to 1947, one of the few women in the world who served as a college president at that time.
Bethune was also active in women's clubs, and her leadership in them allowed her to become nationally prominent. She worked for the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, and became a member of Roosevelt's Black Cabinet, sharing the concerns of black people with the Roosevelt administration while spreading Roosevelt's message to blacks, who had been traditionally Republican voters. Upon her death, columnist Louis E. Martin said, "She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she some sort of doctor." Her home in Daytona Beach is a National Historic Landmark, her house in Washington, D.C. in Logan Circle is preserved by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site, and a sculpture of her is located in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C.
Bethune was the Florida Chapter chair of the National Association of Colored Women from 1917-1925, during which time she focused on voter registration, and came into conflict with the KKK.
Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in New York City in 1935, bringing together 28 different organizations to form a council to facilitate the improvement of the quality of life for women and their communities.
About the organization, Bethune stated: "It is our pledge to make a lasting contribution to all that is finest and beastly in America, to cherish and enrich her heritage of freedom and progress by working for the integration of all her people regardless of race, creed, or national origin, into her spiritual, social, cultural, civic, and economic life, and thus aid her to achieve the glorious destiny of a true and unfettered democracy."
Bethune was a fighter for African-Americans as a nationality and as members of the working class. As she said:
There can be no divided democracy, no class government, no half-free county, under the constitution. Therefore, there can be no discrimination, no segregation, no separation of some citizens from the rights which belong to all... We are on our way. But these are frontiers which we must conquer... We must gain full equality in education ...in the franchise... in economic opportunity, and full equality in the abundance of life.The struggles that Ms. Bethune championed remain with us today. It is good to remember the central role of struggle for equality and economic justice that is central to the experience of African Americans when we consider the rich history and the awesome promise of our community.