JACKSON – Dr. Daisy Century has many roles in her life, including as an actress and as an educator and fighter for civil rights and women’s rights.
She recently brought her talent to the township library where she told the story of America’s self-made millionaire, Madame CJ Walker.
Her portrayal of the historic figure who sought equality for African Americans was part of the library system’s celebration of Black History Month and the American Historical Theatre Reenactors.
Century, of Philadelphia, was trained as a teacher and earned a BA in biology. She received her master’s degree in sciences at South Carolina University and a PhD. from Temple University. The actor utilized various props to represent historic items. She has been involved with very thoroughly researched dramatic portrayals of various historic figures.
Wearing period attire, she presented the life of Madame Walker beginning with her early life as she spoke in character and described the ordeals, dreams and life of the woman who would build a million dollar business and who would support black colleges.
Walker’s life included being orphaned at an early age. Her name was Sarah and her older sister was Lavinia and they had two brothers who had moved away to find work. They lost their father to an unknown illness and a year later their mother also died of the same illness.
“I was about 7 and Lavinia about 9 and here we were, orphans. Now what we going to do?” Century said in the voice of Walker.
“My momma had said I was lucky because I was born free. My mother said to get smart in book learning. Learn to read, write and count and mind no one else’s business except your own,” she added. The two sisters were on their own with only a few people who would periodically check up on them. Their mother had taught them how to gather up firewood and how to cook beans, potatoes and corn “whatever we could dig up for from the garden.”
A neighbor provided them some squirrels and rabbits and asked if they knew how to cook them which they replied “yes,” even though they didn’t. “We put a big fire in the chimney and we put the squirrel in there and watched all the fur burn off and pretty soon that squirrel started to swell.”
Century added, “we said that squirrel is going to explode and it got bigger and bigger and we pulled that squirrel out and we brushed off all the smoke and tore off one of the legs. Oh, nice and crispy. From that day on we knew how to cook a squirrel.”
Years would pass as she and her sister moved in to a neighbor’s home and were paid to do laundry and later they would start their own business and pay rent to that neighbor. Lavinia would go off to be married. Walker “caught the eye” of Moses Mac Williams. They would marry and have a daughter Lelia.
Williams would vanish however. “He went to work and he never did come back home. Back then it wasn’t safe for a colored man to be out by himself. They were lynching them left and right. We don’t know. I never talked about it for the rest of my life. He was a nice man,” she said.
That left Walker a widow and a mother at the age of 20. She continued to wash clothes but vowed to make sure her daughter learned how to read and write. They moved to Saint Louis and they found a place to stay at Saint James Baptist Church.
“That church had a school down in the basement so I could send Lelia to school. She would bring home her little tablet and I would sit right next to her,” she said. Walker would learn her alphabet and vocabulary from daughter stating it was house rule that she repeat her lessons at home.
Another gentleman would catch Walker’s eye, John Davis, and they would get married. “He was working at the sawmill bringing in $2.50 a week and I was bringing in $2.50 a week as a washer woman.”
She told Davis “there was more money out there to be made we just have to figure out a way to make the money.” Talk of money however soured Davis. “‘Woman you are going to drive me to drink’ and that is exactly what he did. He would stop at the saloon on Friday, take out his money, and come home with no money.”
Eventually he would leave. “I said good riddance John. He left and I would continue washing clothes.” Walker would sell hair grease part time but through a dream she had one night would come up with her own mixture that was highly successful and led her to the path of being business owner, entrepreneur and inspiration for not only African Americans but women in general.
She met and married Charles James “CJ” Walker who she knew during her time in Saint Louis. They became reacquainted while she was living in Denver. “Everybody called him ‘CJ’ so I said I don’t want to be called Mrs. Charles Walker. I wanted something that sounded important. Something like Madame. I’m going to call myself Madame CJ Walker.”
She would go on to start a company and form the Walker Team that included her husband, who handled advertising, her daughter, who would become the spokesperson for the company, two attorneys who would handle legal paperwork and banking, two former teachers – one who would handle the office work and the other who would travel with Walker and write her speeches. “The money started rolling in.”