Why NYC needs a tribute to Madam CJ Walker, Harlem philanthropist (She Built NYC! Campaign)

The She Built NYC! campaign, a new program from the Mayor’s Office and the Department of Cultural Affairs, seeks to commission “a public monument or artwork on city property with a focus on women’s history.” The Bowery Boys would like to put our two cents into this debate and we’ve recently presented five nominees for this honor.

Throughout the month, we will shed a little light on a few of these choices. And we’d love to hear yours! Leave a choice in the comments section and we will compile them in a couple weeks in a dedicated article. At the end of the month, we’ll send all the choices — both yours and ours — to the nomination committee.

With the help of Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water, The Help, Hidden Figures), the story of Madam C.J. Walker is about to go mainstream.

Netflix has picked up an eight-episode series on the life of Walker, the first black female self-made business mogul in America. Variety reports that “the series will recount the untold story of how Walker, a black hair care pioneer and mogul, overcame hostile turn-of-the-century America, epic rivalries, tumultuous marriages and some trifling family to become America’s first black, self-made female millionaire.”

The show, produced by Spencer and LeBron James (!), is based on the book On Our Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, by A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter. You heard Bundles in a clip from our recent show on the life of Madam C. J. Walker. (You can listen to the show below.)

Coincidentally, Walker is one of our picks for the She Built NYC! campaign. Her biography is not only an exquisite tale of American success, but a significant highlight in the history of Harlem in its rise to become America’s black mecca.

Walker and her daughter Lelia (later A’lelia) Walker moved to Harlem in the mid 1910s during the neighborhood’s transformation from a white immigrant outpost to a thriving center for African-American culture. The ground floor of their spacious West 136th Street home was a hair salon for black women, opened during a contentious period when irate white property owners attempted to stem the tide of black settlement in Harlem.

The Walkers were at the heart of significant strides on African-American life. Walker used her wealth to support organizations like the NAACP, pushing back against violence and racism. Later, her daughter would use her considerable influence to corral the great talents of the Harlem Renaissance.

Below: The scene inside Walker’s 136th Street salon and home.

Museum of the City of New York

To be a black businesswoman in the early 20th century was a great achievement, but her legacy extends beyond mere finance.

Her work in hair care and the beauty industry provided black women with an outlet into the professional world just as white-owned beauty businesses — like those by Liz Arden and Helena Rubenstein — were doing the same for white women. While today some might question a line of products that disguise or transform the natural beauty of African-American hair, at the time Walker’s beauty line — marketed exclusively to African-Americans — gave women a chance to compete for jobs and social standing in a very prejudiced New York.

For these reasons, we greatly look forward to Spencer’s new series and we hope the city considers Walker for this particular honor.

For more information on Madam C.J. Walker, listen to our podcast on her fascinating life:

Madam C.J. Walker takes a road trip with (left to right) her niece Anjetta Breedlove; Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company factory forelady Alice Kelly; and Walker Company bookkeeper Lucy Flint. Picture courtesy New York Public Library