I’m a huge proponent and user of bibliotherapy – reading books to relax and heal. And during these challenging times, I have found myself turning to stories of inspirational women. I recently read and learned about Madam C.J. Walker, a black businesswoman and philanthropist who is recognized as the first female self-made American millionaire. Her life story is told in the book “On Her Own Ground” by news journalist A’Lelia Bundles who is Walker’s great-great-granddaughter. I also recommend the new Netflix mini-series “Self-Made” starring Octavia Spencer which was inspired by Walker’s life.
Madam C.J. Walker’s story was especially interesting to me because it includes an Estate Planning strategy I have yet to see in my practice. Madam was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana in 1867. She was the first in her family to be born free, rather than a slave. Her life was hard. She was orphaned at age 7, was subsequently abused by a brother-in-law who was her guardian, and then mistreated by three (3) husbands. For years, she worked as a laundress and a domestic servant to support her daughter and herself.
But that was not the life Madam had hoped for. So in 1910 she started her own company – the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company – to make and sell hair care products for black women. She had very little support initially, but within just a few years the company because wildly successful and grew nationwide. Madam employed and empowered thousands of other black women as sales agents, stylists and salon franchise owners. She gave much of her fortune during her lifetime and at her death to charitable causes including the National Negro Business League, the NAACP, and the Tuskegee Institute.
Her business was valuable, and Madam believed that the continued success of her business after her death would improve the lives of other black women. She knew she needed a business succession plan but she didn’t have a successor. Madam’s daughter, Lelia Walker, was involved in the business but not capable enough. So Madam made an unusual Estate Planning decision – she sought out a child whom she believed could become her heir and continue the business. That child – Mae Walker – was adopted as a young teenager by Lelia in 1912. She became an adored granddaughter and Madam sent her to Spelman College.
After Madam’s death in 1919 and Lelia’s death in 1931, Mae Walker became president of the company and then was succeeded by her own daughter, the fourth in line of Walker women company presidents. Unfortunately, none of Madam’s heirs had her business acumen. The company suffered during the Depression and never did as well under other leadership.