I have been remiss in my duties as Motivation Maven – how could I have neglected to feature Madam CJ Walker??
She serves as a fountain of inspiration for countless African American female entrepreneurs, myself included. If you have not encountered her inspiring story, let me introduce her to you.
- Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. Her parents Owen and Minerva Breedlove, both ex-slaves, were sharecroppers who lived on the Burney plantation. She had 5 siblings. Her mother died first, possibly due to a cholera outbreak in 1872 (when she was 5). Her father remarried and died shortly afterward when she was 7.
- Sarah moved in with her older sister, Louvenia, and brother-in-law, Willie Powell. She later said she married Moses McWilliams when she was 14 years old to escape Powell’s abuse. Three years later her daughter, Lelia (called A’Leila) McWilliams, was born.
- When Sarah was 20, her husband was murdered by a white lynch mob. Shortly afterward she moved to St. Louis where three of her brothers were barbers. For 20 years she did backbreaking work as a washerwoman in Vicksburg and St. Louis. While working as a laundry woman, she was able to save money, educate A’Lelia, and join the National Association of Colored Women in the 1880s. In 1894 Sarah married a man named John Davis. That marriage ended around 1903. In January 1906 she married a newspaper sales agent, Charles Joseph Walker. After her marriage she began using the name Madam CJ Walker. They divorced in 1910.
- Like many women of her era, Walker experienced hair loss. Because most Americans lacked indoor plumbing, central heating and electricity, they bathed and washed their hair infrequently. The result was scalp disease. Sarah experimented with home remedies and products already on the market until she finally developed her own shampoo. She began selling Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, an ointment that contained sulfur to make the scalp and hair healthier and promote growth.
- Walker’s first influential experience with hair was in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Here she was introduced to various black leaders and also beautiful black women, “women with hair.” She redesigned the hot comb handles and teeth to make them more useful on black hair.
- Soon Sarah, known professionally as Madam C. J. Walker, started selling her products throughout the US. Her beauty system included the hot comb, Wonderful Hair Grower, Glossine hair oil, Temple Grower, and a Tetter Salve for psoriasis of the scalp. While her daughter Lelia ran a mail order business from Denver, Madam Walker and her husband traveled throughout the southern and eastern states, promoting her products. Charles was a marketing expert and he suggested the door-to-door sales concept that became Walker’s trademark.
- They settled in Pittsburgh in 1908 and opened Lelia College to train “hair culturists.” After their schooling, most of the graduates from this college were employed by Walker herself. She and her company employed over 3,000 people at one point. In 1910, after her divorce, Walker moved to Indianapolis, Indiana where she established her headquarters and built a factory.
- She began to lecture other black women and help them to build their own businesses. She also spoke on black issues at conventions sponsored by powerful black institutions, such as the NAACP and the National Association Of Colored Woman (NACW). Walker was acknowledged by the NACW for making the largest contribution to save the Anacostia (Washington, DC) house of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. She continued to donate money throughout her life to the NACCP, the YMCA, and to black schools, organizations, individuals, orphanages, and retirement homes.
- Madame CJ Walker was an advocate in the making of anti-lynching laws after the East St. Louis Riot of 1917. Her fame gave her the right to become a prominent figure and an icon for African American Rights. Walker immersed herself in political struggles such as the rights of World War I veterans.
- In May 1918 she moved to her Irvington-on-Hudson, New York estate, Villa Lewaro. Her mansion was designed by Vertner Tandy, the first black architect to be licensed in New York State and a founding member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. One of her neighbors was industrialist John D. Rockefeller.
- Madam C.J. Walker died at Villa Lewaro on Sunday, May 25, 1919 from complications of hypertension. She was 51. At her death she was considered to be the wealthiest African-American woman in America and known to be the first self-made female American millionaire.
- Madam Walker was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1992. She also has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the National Cosmetology Hall of Fame and the National Direct Sales Hall of Fame.
- In 2002, she was listed in 100 Greatest African Americans, a book by Molefi Kete Asante.
- On January 28, 1998, the US Postal Service, as part of its Black Heritage Series, issued the Madam C.J. Walker Commemorative stamp.
- On 16 March 2010, Congressman Charles Rangel introduced HJ81, a Congressional House Joint Resolution, honoring Madam C. J. Walker. That legislation currently awaits a vote.
- The Guinness Book of Records cites Walker as the first woman who became a millionaire by her own achievements.
Madam Walker was quoted as saying, “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
Madame C.J. Walker’s greatest legacy was the impact she made on the beauty industry for black women. Although there were increased employment opportunities in the urban north, female migrants had to battle with issues such as racial segregation as well as class and gender restrictions. Not only did she assist black women with educational opportunities, but she made it her goal to create a safe and comfortable place in which black women could be pampered. She believed that this kind of attention would boost self-confidence and alleviate the daily stress that black women suffered from.
After her mother died, A’Lelia Walker took over her mother’s business, becoming the new president. In 1927, the Walker building, costing $1 million, was constructed in Indianapolis. She ran the mansion at Villa Lewaro, nicknamed “The Dark Tower,” as a salon for black artists and intellectuals. She supported the writers, poets, and musicians of the Renaissance while welcoming them into her home and allowed them to participate in somewhat of a ‘think tank’ experience.
Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Carl Van Vechten, as well as others held her in high regard. She had a floor set aside for the artists to work as well as an art exhibit. The Great Depression put an end to these parties as well as caused the closing of the Dark Tower in 1930. A’Lelia Walker died on August 16th, 1931 and every prominent African American of the Harlem Renaissance was at her funeral.