My Black History: Demanding respect

My Black History: Demanding respect

Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.”

My grandmother was an educator. She learned the trade of cosmetology at Spelman and she became Madam J.M. Walker in Savannah (no relation to Madam C.J. Walker of St. Louis, the first black female self-made millionaire). According to the book Madam C.J. Walker’s Secrets to Success, by A’Lelia Bundles, the “Madam” title was adopted by black cosmetologists from women pioneers of the French beauty industry.

My grandmother always used the moniker J.M., she told me, because she wanted to ensure the respect of white people for whom she relied on getting products and services for her business.

“I don’t want them to call me by my first name,” she said. When my grandmother would go shopping downtown on Saturdays, the white people in the stories would always refer to her as Mrs. Walker, a rare honor in an era in the South when black customers were sometimes referred to as “girl” or “gal.”

My grandmother taught cosmetology to adults in night school at Beach-Cuyler School, where my mother was a high school student. When she opened her business on West Broad Street, my grandmother was president of the company and my grandfather was vice president. 

 

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