Madam C.J. Walker: Her Crusade

A black woman's hair-care empire set a style and smashed barriers

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Walker became a central figure in black leadership and one of the first black philanthropists, donating funds to build a black YMCA in Indianapolis and restore Frederick Douglass's home in Washington, and helping lead the protest against lynching--she traveled to the White House with other leaders to present a petition to Woodrow Wilson. (He declined to see them.) In 1918 she moved into the neo-Palladian Villa Lewaro, an estate she built at Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y., which was designed by the first registered black architect and situated near the estates of John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould. At a time when unskilled white workers earned about $11 a week, Walker's agents were making $5 to $15 a day, pioneering a system of multilevel marketing that Walker and her associates perfected for the black market. More than any other single businessperson, Walker unveiled the vast economic potential of an African-American economy, even one stifled and suffocating under Jim Crow segregation.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor and author, heads the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute of Afro-American Research at Harvard

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