Madam C.J. Walker in the National Archives

Madam C.J. Walker in the National Archives


Madam Walker was a great entrepreneur. She
was a master at marketing. She was a pioneer of the modern hair care and cosmetics industry.
She trained thousands of African-American women to sell her products and to be her sales
agents, this army of financially-independent women who otherwise would have been sharecroppers
and maids and laundresses. My real introduction to Madam Walker as a child was in everyday
kinds of ways. The silverware that we used every day had her monogram on it. When I started
really doing my research on her I began to discover other things about her. She also
was very much a philanthropist, a political activist, an anti-lynching activist, a patron
of the arts. I was able to find some things, actually at the National Archives. When I
first got here I really didn’t know what I was going to find. Well, voila! I went through
Southern Claims Commission papers and in fact found that R.W. Burney, the owner of the plantation
where Madam Walker was born and where her parents had been slaves, had in fact filed
to get reimbursed for timber that had been cut down on his land. Sherman and Grant had
used that plantation as a staging area for the Union Army as they were trying to take
over Vicksburg, which the confederacy controlled. So I found also the fact that a hospital was
on the plantation. But to actually be able to look at the reports from the hospital and
to see how many people had died and who was sick and what the weather was like. It made
the plantation come alive for me. There’s also this very interesting document, January
29, 1864, number of people who are sick, who are in the freedmen’s camp. So there must
have been a freedmen’s camp in addition to the camp for the soldiers. And it lists
the names of the freed persons who were sick. Riley, age 1. Lucy Limney, age 35. James Norton,
56. Carolyn Youngblood, 33. Thelina, no last name, 5. It gave me sort of an emotional connection
to it, to be able to touch the paper. For my family, there was, people think, oh you
know, they’re famous and you can find out a lot about them. Yes, I can find out a lot
about them after they became famous, but the first 38 years of her life it was really just
digging and digging and digging and not giving up. In an amazing way, a little bit of a document
here and a little bit of a document there, you can really pull together the story. One
of the biggest surprises to me, more National Archives records, there were War Department
records that showed that she had been spied upon by a black spy who was working for the
War Department, who was looking for what they called “subversive negroes.” They basically
wanted civil rights and so they were rocking the boat. So I loved that discovery! One of
the wonderful things about the way the American government collected records through the years
is that everybody’s family is in the National Archives.

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