1910s - Madam C.J. Walker pioneered global black activism
Working with Marcus Garvey and others, she helped expand consciousness worldwide
Madam C.J. Walker is best known as the first African American female millionaire in the United States. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana, Walker rose to fame during the early 20th century after making a fortune marketing beauty and hair products. Walker’s widespread influence, however, extended far beyond the world of cosmetology. The self-made millionaire was a political activist who played a key role in black internationalist movements, joining forces with a diverse group of black activists committed to ending racism, colonialism, and imperialism.
Walker’s internationalist activities coincided with key historical developments of the early 20th century including World War I, European colonial rule in Africa, and the rapid growth of American imperial expansion overseas. Maintaining a global racial consciousness, Walker joined the chorus of black voices in this period denouncing developments such as the U.S. Occupation of Haiti and colonization by Western European powers of countries such as Togo and Cameroon.
During the early 20th century, Walker supported the efforts of the Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey, leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Founded by Garvey in Jamaica in 1914, with the assistance of Amy Ashwood, the UNIA relocated to Harlem in 1918, where it drew a significant following of black men and women from across the globe. Though she did not join the UNIA, Walker worked closely with the organization’s leaders and provided financial backing. Embracing Garvey’s vision of Pan-African unity, political self-determination, and black self-sufficiency, Walker contributed funds to launch the organization’s newspaper, the Negro World. She also assisted with expenses for the organization’s new headquarters in Harlem.
Walker’s transnational activism extended beyond the financial support she offered to the UNIA. During this period, she contributed funds to support mission schools and other educational initiatives in places like South Africa. In mid December 1918, Walker traveled to Washington, D.C. to join 250 activists at the National Race Congress for World Democracy, a conference organized by black journalist William Monroe Trotter.
Weeks later, on January 2, 1919, Walker established the International League of Darker Peoples (ILDP), a short-lived but significant black internationalist organization in the United States. In a meeting held at Walker’s home along the banks of the Hudson River, she joined forces with several other well-known black activists, including Marcus Garvey, labor organizer A. Philip Randolph, and Harlem clergyman Adam Clayton Powell Sr., to launch the ILDP in an effort to advance the interests of people of color in the United States and across the globe. Against the backdrop of World War I, which had only ended a few months prior, the ILDP provided a platform for Walker and her associates to advocate for the rights and dignity of marginalized groups across the globe and tap into a surging anti-imperial and anti-colonial fervor.
Significantly, the ILDP promoted Afro-Asian solidarity, calling for black men and women to collaborate with people of Asian descent in the global struggle for political rights and freedom. Building on a long history of political alliances between peoples of African and Asian descent, the ILDP provided a space for both groups to collaborate in the immediate aftermath of World War I. In January 1919, only five days after founding the ILDP, Walker coordinated a historic meeting between the ILDP and Japanese editor S. Kurowia, publisher of the Tokyo newspaper Yorozu Choho. Kurowia was also one of the Japanese representatives who had been selected to participate in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.
Planned for January 18, 1919, the Paris Peace Conference would bring together more than 30 nations for the purpose of establishing peace terms following the end of World War I. Hoping to capitalize on this significant event, Walker coordinated a meeting with Kurowia to request Japan’s assistance in advocating for racial equality at the Paris Conference. Walker and her colleagues in the ILDP wanted to ensure that the interests of colonized subjects would not be overlooked.
Despite the ILDP’s efforts, the issue of racial prejudice was still largely sidelined at the Paris Peace Conference. In the aftermath of the meeting, Walker and her colleagues continued to push for the rights of marginalized groups across the globe but before long the ILDP collapsed. Internal tensions combined with external pressures — including federal surveillance — ultimately led to the group’s quick demise in 1919. Not long after, on May 25, 1919, Walker passed away at the age of 51.
While she is remembered as one of the most successful black women entrepreneurs in U. S. history, Walker was also a key figure in 20th century black internationalist movements — using her time, talents, and resources to support the efforts of political groups like the UNIA. Though short-lived, Walker’s ILDP stands as one of her many significant achievements, underscoring her unwavering commitment to challenging racism and improving the social and economic conditions of marginalized groups in the United States and other parts of the globe.