As Sarah Breedlove – better known to the public as Madam C.J. Walker, one of the nation’s first female, black, self-made millionaires – built up her line of haircare products at her Indianapolis factory in the early 20th century, there was always one person by her side to ensure that the I’s of her business were dotted and the T’s were crossed – her attorney, Freeman B. Ransom.
The tale of how Walker and Freeman forged their business partnership varies throughout black history folklore. Most agree that the two first met on a train trip through the Hoosier state, but some say Freeman traveled further to continue his legal studies at the Columbia Law School before returning to Walker’s factory in Indianapolis, while others claim he was headed north toward Gary when Walker convinced him to disembark a few stops early and join her in the capital city.
Regardless of how their business relationship came to be, A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, told a group of attorneys gathered at the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Indianapolis last week that the relationship between Walker and Freeman was the driving force behind her Walker’s legendary success.
“He made sure the trains ran on time,” Bundles said.
Bundles’ presentation on the partnership between Freeman and her great-great-grandmother was part of a Black History Month CLE program sponsored by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Probation Office, Marshals Service and Indiana Federal Community Defenders Inc. The Black History Month celebration also included a performance by the North Central High School Northernaires, a predominantly black high school gospel choir that performed hymns and religious songs for the crowd. Bundles, an Indianapolis native, graduated from North Central in 1970.
Bundles told the attorneys gathered for the CLE that as her ancestor’s wealth and fame grew in the first decades of the 1900s, Freeman often worked behind the scenes to ensure business, and often personal, decisions were made in her best interests. The type of attorney who could anticipate needs and “see around the corners,” Freeman was often thinking several steps ahead of Walker to shield her from any potential harm that might come her way, Bundles said.
For example, Freeman fought to protect the trademarks on Walker’s haircare line against competitors who might try to make a profit off of copycat products. Additionally, when Walker wanted to relocate both her residence and her business to New York City in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, Freeman convinced her to maintain her factory in the Hoosier state, where it was much more economical to conduct business. While Walker was living in Harlem, Freeman stayed behind to keep the day-to-day operations of the business running.
Freeman’s influence over Walker’s life also extended to her personal affairs, Bundles said. When she became an activist for the rights of black soldiers during World War I, Freeman learned that Walker was being spied on and warned her not to become too radical for fear of being lumped in with the Bolshevik movement. Additionally, when a movie theater in Indianapolis charged Walker 25 cents for one ticket – five times more than what white patrons were asked to pay – Freeman filed a lawsuit on her behalf, though the outcome of that suit remains unclear.
Delving into the most personal levels of the millionaire’s life, Freeman even went so far as to ensure Walker obtained a legal divorce from her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker – even though the two were never actually married.
The Walkers were together for six years, but the two were never officially married because she had never formally divorced her second husband, John Davis. But with Freeman’s help, there is now a record showing that the Walkers ended their “marriage,” a testament to Freeman’s dedication the Walker’s best interests, Bundles said.
“Whenever I have friends who are going into business or trying to do something new, telling me their family’s getting ready to do a move, I just say to them, ‘Hire a good attorney,’” Bundles told the crowd. “‘If you think it’s expensive, you think those billable hours are expensive, wait until something bad happens – that’s really expensive.’”