While anxiously awaiting Netflix’s release of “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madame C.J. Walker,” the question popped into my head, “Had Madam C.J. Walker ever visited Buxton, Iowa?”
The question was a plausible one.
People—especially African Americans—beyond Iowa had heard of this amazing town. Buxton was a coal mining town of 5,000 residents established in 1900 by the Consolidation Coal Company, in which blacks and whites were treated equal and African Americans were leaders in the community. They made up 40-55% of the population for most of Buxton’s existence.
Numerous well-known African Americans from around the nation, including Booker T. Washington, Hallie Q. Brown, Roscoe Conkling Simmons, and Blind Boone, had been to Buxton.
So why not Madam C.J. Walker?
Madam Walker, the ex-washerwoman who created a beauty empire that made her the country’s first female millionaire, traveled the country promoting her business and motivating and helping African Americans throughout the nation. So it made sense that Buxton, with its large African American population would be a potential destination.
Madam C.J. Walker Leaves the Sanitarium and Heads to Iowa
To my delight, she had indeed visited Buxton.
In mid-February 1918, she kicked off her five-state Midwestern tour in Iowa two weeks after discharging herself for the second time from Michigan’s prestigious Battle Creek Sanitarium against her doctor’s orders. Three months prior, she had been diagnosed with nephritis—inflammation of the kidneys—and was still unwell.
She arrived in Des Moines at the invitation of her friend, Sue M. Brown. Mrs. Brown, wife of prominent attorney and man of many firsts, S. Joe Brown, had a long list of accomplishments of her own.
- published a monthly journal, the Iowa Colored Woman
- was a business manager for the National Association of Colored Women
- organized the NAACP, along with her husband
- started numerous clubs to help better the lives of black people
Additionally, she was instrumental in the formation of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Committee and was its “chairman”. The committee was tasked with raising the funds to lift the mortgage on Mr. Douglass’s home and preserve it.
According to the Iowa State Bystander, this last effort was what brought Madam Walker to Iowa.
Madam C.J. Walker Speaks Throughout Des Moines
Madam Walker’s first stop was West High in Des Moines. More than 1,500 attendees—both black and white—paid $0.25 and filled the auditorium to hear her speak. All proceeds were donated to the committee.
The next day she visited the black soldiers at Camp Dodge, the segregated camp of over 30,000 soldiers, of which 3,000 or so were black.
“[Madam Walker] exhibited to them free of charge the stereopticon views of her quarter of a million dollar home that she is now building at Irvington on the Hudson in New York City.”Iowa State Bystander, February 22, 1918
She also “delivered to them a message of patriotism and hope.”
However, less than five months later, the soldiers’ “patriotism” and “hope” would be tested when three black soldiers would be convicted of raping a 17-year-old white girl and hung. All soldiers would be forced to watch, but the black soldiers would be forced to do so at the front, closest to the platform.
Madam C.J. Walker Speaks From the Pulpit
Over the next two days, Madam Walker spoke at churches.
First, at Bethel A.M.E. Mission, a church in northeastern Des Moines. Reportedly, the church/congregation was so small that, according to the Bystander, “in addition to donating the entire door receipts [she] made a personal contribution to the property fund of this struggling little congregation.”
A day later, on Sunday, she delivered speeches at Corinthian Baptist Church and the Park Street Army YMCA. Her message was infused with details of her relationship with Christ and the value of “an upright Christian life.”
Finally, Madam C.J. Walker Arrives in Buxton
On Monday morning, Mrs. Brown and Madam C.J. Walker traveled to Buxton where Madam Walker once again spoke to a standing room only crowd. And once again, 100% of the admission price went to the Frederick Douglass Memorial Committee.
But attendees in Buxton were also asked to contribute to the NAACP’s fund for the legal defense of Dr. Leroy Bundy. Dr. Bundy, a prominent dentist in East St. Louis, was accused of leading the East St. Louis Race
Riot Massacre and thus responsible for the death of two police officers.
The massacre began on July 1, 1917 when white men drove through the black neighborhood, firing shots. An hour later, a car with four white people returned. Black residents, thinking it was the same men from before, fired. They killed two men in the car. The men were police officers.
“Later that day, thousands of white spectators who assembled to view the detectives’ bloodstained automobile marched into the black section of town and started rioting. After cutting the water hoses of the fire department, the rioters burned entire sections of the city, shot inhabitants as they escaped the flames, and lynched several blacks. Guardsmen were called in, but according to contemporary accounts, they joined in the rioting rather than stop it.”People’s World
When the massacre had ended on July 3, 1917, the NAACP reported that around 150-200 African Americans had been killed and six thousand had been left homeless.
According to the Republic-Times, Dr. Bundy’s lawyers felt he wouldn’t receive a fair trial in East St. Louis so they searched for another location. Interestingly, the location chosen was Waterloo, Iowa.
The trial commenced in March 1919 and by March 28, 1919, Dr. Bundy was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, despite his claims of innocence and an alibi that was corroborated by him and numerous white men. After an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, he was released from prison in 1920.
Back to Madam Walker and Buxton
Madam Walker remained in Buxton for one day as the guest of Dr. E.A. Carter and his wife, Mrs. Rose Carter.
Dr. Carter, the first African American to obtain a medical degree from the University of Iowa, was a company doctor who treated both black and white patients in Buxton. Both of the Carters were well respected in Buxton and added to Madam Walker’s “pleasant recollections of Iowa” (according to to the Iowa State Bystander).
The Netflix Series and A’Lelia Bundles’ Book
All of this has made me want to know more. I cannot wait to binge-watch “Self Made” on Netflix tonight (and see Octavia Spencer and Blair Underwood). I cannot wait to read On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A’Lelia Bundles, Madam C.J. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter.
Writing this post has uncovered so much I didn’t know about Camp Dodge, the East St. Louis Massacre, Madam Walker’s visit to Buxton, and Frederick Douglass Memorial Committee (which, by the way, did save the home) —things I want to research further.