The Netflix limited series Self Made is refocusing attention on Madam C.J. Walker, the millionaire entrepreneur and empowerer of women best known for her haircare empire. The series is honest about being more “inspired by” Madam Walker’s life than true to it. Chockablock with B-list black star power (plus Octavia Spencer), Self Made is entertaining if you don’t think about it too hard. Ultimately, however, its heavy-handed resort to tropes and types and its soap opera style do a disservice to her story. Anyone wanting a closer truth should turn to A’Lelia Bundles’ On Her Own Ground, or my fave, Beverly Lowry’s Her Dream of Dreams: The Rise and Triumph of Madam C.J. Walker. Among other things, you’ll find an important part of Walker’s story completely omitted from Self-Made — her relationship with Dr. Joseph H. Ward, an African-American physician born in Wilson about 1872.
When she first arrived in Indianapolis in 1910, Walker boarded with Joseph and Zella Locklear Ward and gave beauty culture demonstrations in their parlor.
Indianapolis Recorder, 12 February 1910.
Indianapolis Recorder, 5 March 1910.
Walker and her daughter Lelia Robinson grew close to the Wards, and Dr. Ward was Madam’s personal physician the remainder of her life. He was at her bedside when she died.
The Wards accompanied Madam Walker on a drive to Kansas City, Missouri, where she addressed the National Educational Congress on “How the Negro Woman May Success in Business.” Indianapolis Star, 13 July 1913.
On a drive from Saint Louis to Kansas City, the automobile in which the Wards and Walker were traveling was jumped by a wild animal. Indianapolis Star, 28 September 1913.
Also in 1913, on the steps of the newly dedicated Y.M.C.A., Madam Walker with Booker T. Washington and, behind them, her lawyer Freeman Ransom and Dr. Joseph H. Ward.
From Lowry’s Her Dream of Dreams:
“By Friday, Ward informs the household that Madame Walker cannot last longer than Sunday. On Saturday night, about midnight, she slips into unconsciousness. And her faithful friends and doctors and family gather around her bed; they are religious people who also believe in love and company, and that no one should pass from this life into the next alone. And so they wait, hushed, whispering, watching her, waiting.
“Sunday dawns warms and clear, and early rays of the sun crack through the drawn damask curtains and perhaps fall in splinters across the rose silk coverlet on Madame’s bed. At seven o’clock her people are still there, but no one feels her go and no one knows when she dies until Ward turns and says, ‘It’s over.’
“And if they weep it is with relief, for the end of her suffering. Her dying words, Ward later reports, were ‘I want to live to help my race.'”
Photo courtesy of Madam Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society.