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Two American Entrepreneurs: Madam C.J. Walker and J.C. Penney

[Cover photo] Walker Building, Indianapolis, Indiana
(Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology)

[Cover photo] Golden Rule Store, Kemmerer, Wyoming
(J.C. Penney Archives)


t a busy intersection in the bustling city of Indianapolis, Indiana, stands the imposing four-story brick structure known as the Walker Building. Buff-colored terra cotta is used for decorative details, and each doorway is embellished with brightly colored African masks. Completed in 1927, this magnificent building marks the climax of the career of Madam C.J. Walker, one of America's most successful African-American businesswoman of the early 20th century. Much of the building served as the headquarters of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, a business which employed some 3,000 African-American women and men to manufacture and sell hair products and cosmetics. The Walker Building, planned by Madam Walker herself but constructed after her death, was designed to serve not only as the headquarters for her business, but as a social and cultural center for African Americans in Indianapolis. Today, it houses the Madam Walker Theatre Center and various commercial businesses.

A thousand miles to the west, in the small town of Kemmerer in western Wyoming, stands a small building that represents the early days of another successful career. This building housed the Golden Rule Store, a dry goods business that grew into the J. C. Penney Company, the first nationwide chain of department stores in the country. Built about 1897, the two-story stone building features a cast iron storefront decorated with rosettes and scrollwork and an elaborate metal cornice. When James Cash Penney moved his dry goods business here in 1904, the building also housed a saloon, offices, and apartments. In a 25-by-140 foot section of the first floor, Penney developed and refined the merchandising ideas that led to the growth of his successful chain of stores.

These two historic buildings--one large and imposing, the other modest--provide insight into the characters of two of America's most famous businesspeople. Both Walker and Penney overcame great odds, and both combined a desire to serve others with great financial success.


About This Lesson

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

Setting the Stage: Historical Context

Locating the Site: Maps
 1. United States
 2. Indianapolis, Indiana

Determining the Facts: Readings
 1. Meet Madam C.J. Walker
 2. Meet James Cash Penney
 3. Philosophies of Walker and Penney
 4. Madam C.J. Walker's Beauty Preparations
 5. Golden Rule Advertisement

Visual Evidence: Images
 1. Golden Rule Store, 1902
 2. Golden Rule Store, 1904
 3. Walker manufacturing building
 4. Walker Building
 5. Madam C.J. Walker, before and after
 6. Madam C.J. Walker

Putting It All Together: Activities
 1. Comparing Walker and Penney
 2. Changes in Advertising
 3. Starting a Business
 4. Researching a Local Business

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This lesson is based on the Madam Walker Building and the J.C. Penney Historic District, two of the thousands of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Both properties have been designated National Historic Landmarks.



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