Madam C.J. Walker—Leader in Philanthropy and Successful Business Woman

9, 10, 11, 12

The purpose of this lesson is to show that philanthropy is a diverse American tradition. Students will focus on the philanthropy of Madam C. J. Walker, successful African American business woman, who supported many causes with the profits of her business. They consider how they themselves might take philanthropic action.

Lesson Rating 
PrintTwo or Three Fifty Minute Class Periods

The learner will:

  • chart how African American philanthropist Madam C. J. Walker faced the challenges of poverty and discrimination and rose to success.
  • analyze the impact that Madam C. J. Walker had on improving her community.
  • develop a plan and take action demonstrating how responsible citizens today might act in improving their communities using local programs as models.

student copies or projected image of Madam C. J. Walker's philanthropy (handout)



  1. Anticipatory Set: Ask students to imagine doing laundry before the invention of electric powered machines. It was a long and backbreaking process. Water had to be pumped and heated on a wood stove. Then it was poured into tubs where clothing was scrubbed by hand, then hung to dry. Ironing was also tedious. Irons had to be heated on hot stoves since there was no electric power. Those who could afford it often chose to take their laundry to someone who would do all this hard work for them.

    In this lesson students will learn about someone who did this hard work for others for many years, developed her own products for beauty care, and built a very successful business during a time that few opportunities were open to women of any color. Furthermore, she did not forget others when she became wealthy but worked to support worthy projects and encouraged her employees to do the same.

  2. Have students read about Madam C. J. Walker by researching her philanthropic role in different issues and events. Give them the handout as a guide for topics to look up. 

    Have them read about her upbringing and motivations for her success. They will find that she was the daughter of ex-slaves and sharecroppers who lived on a Louisiana cotton plantation. When her parents died she worked first as a domestic servant and then worked for seventeen years in St. Louis, Missouri, laundering clothes. In her late thirties she began a line of beauty products for African American women and opened a string of beauty parlors and beauty training schools. She became the first self-made millionaire in the United States. Highly successful, she began supporting African American causes with both money and personal involvement.

  3. After they conduct research, work together to share what they have learned about the following:

    • Difficulties faced by African Americans at the turn of the century
    • Strategies and business practices by Madam Walker
    • Philanthropic activities of Madam Walker
  4. Analyze the impact Madam C. J. Walker had on her community by discussing the following questions:

    • What is philanthropy?
    • Why is Madam C. J. Walker called a philanthropist? 
    • Who benefited from Madam C. J. Walker's philanthropy? Why might she have chosen each area of philanthropy?
    • Even though doctors warned Madam C. J. Walker that she had to "slow down," she refused and consequently died in her early fifties. Why do you suppose she chose to use her money and time this way rather than relax and enjoy the life of the wealthy?
    • How was she demonstrating civic responsibility (acting for the good of the public) at a time before women had the right to vote and most African Americans were disenfranchised (did not have the right to vote)?
  5. Discuss: Looking at your own preferences, what philanthropic way would you use your time and money today? Are there specific causes you would like to advance?

  6. Tell students to complete a chart or graphic organizer that shows how they could demonstrate civic responsibility.


Have students create or web an analysis map of Madam C.J. Walker, her life and accomplishments. It should include her background, major accomplishments and philanthropic activities using words or phrases rather than whole sentences or paragraphs. To evaluate this student analysis map, present the following checklist to students to familiarize them with what is expected.

Madam C.J. Walker's name is in the center and is the largest size. Background information, accomplishments and examples of her philanthropy are in smaller figures that circle or connect to the central figure. The purpose or theme is clear (such as her actions to help others). The map is readable and neat. The information is accurate and thorough. Scoring Rubric: 4 - All five elements are present in the analysis map and it shows a deep understanding of Madame C.J. Walker's life and contributions to the public good. 3 - All five elements are present. 2 - Three or four elements are present 1 - One or two elements are present 0 - No attempt

Cross Curriculum 

Students will develop a plan demonstrating how responsible citizens today might act in improving their communities using local programs as models.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 02. Diverse Cultures
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Analyze philanthropic traditions of diverse cultural groups and their contributions to civil society.
      2. Benchmark HS.6 Describe the role that growth in personal wealth plays in the changing types of philanthropy for minority groups and women.
      3. Benchmark HS.7 Identify and give examples of the important roles women and minorities have played in the civil society sector in history.