Madam C. J. Walker

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Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made U.S. woman millionaire

Sarah Breedlove (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919), known as Madam C. J. Walker, was an American entrepreneur and philanthropist. She was said to be the first female self-made millionaire in America.[1] When she died her estate was worth $600,000 (worth about $8 million today). So this may not have been entirely true.[1] She made her fortune in the hair care business. Her own hair loss caused her to look for “hair-growing” solutions.[2] She developed and marketed a successful line of beauty and hair products for black women. She started the company Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She died May 25, 1919 of hypertension in Irvington, New York at the age of 51.

Early life[change | change source]

On December 23, 1867, Sarah Breedlove was born on a plantation near the village of Delta, Louisiana. She was the fifth child born to recently freed slaves, Owen and Minerva.[3] She was their first child born free.[4] Her mother died in 1874 and her father died in 1875.[3] She went to live with her sister Louvinia and her husband. In 1877 they moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi where Sarah picked cotton. At age 14 she married Moses McWilliams.[3] He died two years later. Breedlove and her daughter A'Lelia went to St. Louis. Two of her brothers were barbers there. She worked washing clothes for $1.50 USD a day.[3] She also attended night school. In 1894 Breedlove married for the second time to John Davis. But the marriage failed as he was unfaithful to her.[5]

Early career[change | change source]

In the 1890s Breedlove began losing her hair due to a scalp condition.[a][6] She began experimenting with home made cures. At the 1904 World's Fair Breedlove met Annie (Turnbow) Malone.[5] By 1905 she was selling Malone's products.[6] Breedlove moved to Denver where she married her second husband, Charles Joseph Walker.[6] In a dream it came to her what to mix up for a hair product.[5] One of the ingredients was only available in Africa so she sent for some. Her hair started growing again.[5] She started her own business selling a product she developed "Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower" It was designed as a scalp healer and hair conditioner.[6] As Mrs C.J. Walker she changed her business name to Madam C.J. Walker.[6] in 1906, her daughter A'Lelia graduated from college and came to work managing her mother's company.[7] This freed Walker to begin selling her product door-to-door. She gave presentations to church groups wherever she could. In 1908 she started her own college in Pittsburgh to train her salespeople.[6]

Self-made success[change | change source]

Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, now a National Historic Landmark

In 1910 she incorporated her company. She could not attract big investors so she used $10,000 of her own money[b] to start her school and factory in Indianapolis. She was the sole shareholder of the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. Sarah Walker was a serious business women. She began mixing herbs and shampoos. Her products where especially for black women. In a short time she had trained 40,000 salespeople, her "Walker Agents".[5] Her agents learned her system of vegetable shampoos, witch hazel, cold creams and diets.[5] She didn't invent the hot comb, for straightening hair. But she improved it with wider teeth just for black women's hair.[5]

Walker attended the National Negro Business League Thirteenth Annual Convention in 1912.[8] No women were included on the schedule of speakers. Walker got up and took the podium from Booker T. Washington who was moderating. She told her story and why women should be included. At the fourteenth convention she was on the schedule of speakers. She had the ability to inspire others.

Walker was a leader and a role model in the black community. She was one of the first female African Americans to create hair care products for black women. This was at a time when almost all products where for white people. The goal of her starting her business was to make female African Americans feel better about themselves. They could feel better about their appearance by using her products. Walker re-invented hair straightening just for black people. Her way of making money helped her and also got her employees out of poverty. Whenever they would make a sale for her they would get a certain percentage of the money. She did get some criticism from other black leaders. Booker T. Washington criticized her for making black women look like white women. He did not like skin bleaching and straightened hair.[9] But she stated that the crucial ingredients for her hair care products came from Africa.[5] Madam C. J. Walker died on May 25, 1919.[10]

Notes[change | change source]

  1. Hair loss was not uncommon during this time. Her great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, wrote in an essay: “During the early 1900s, when most Americans lacked indoor plumbing and electricity, bathing was a luxury. As a result, Sarah and many other women were going bald because they washed their hair so infrequently, leaving it vulnerable to environmental hazards such as pollution, bacteria and lice.”[5]
  2. In the early 20th century blacks were excluded from most trade unions and could not get bank loans.[5] Most blacks were trapped into unskilled, low-paying jobs. The only way out was to start your own business. A business that would fill a need for black customers. The opportunities were there and start-up costs were low. Also, big businesses were slow to create products for black needs. Entrepreneurs like Malone and Walker saw the opportunity and worked hard to fill these needs.[5]

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 "Madam C. J. Walker". Philanthropy Roundtable. Archived from the original on 20 April 2015. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
  2. "Mme C.J. Walker; History: Legacy". Madame C.J. Walker Enterprises. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "Madam C.J. Walker Biography". Bio. A&E Television Networks, LLC. Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  4. "Madam C.J. Walker". Biography. Retrieved 2018-03-12.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (15 November 2013). "Madam Walker, the First Black American Woman to Be a Self-Made Millionaire". The African Americans. WNET/PBS. Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Mary Bellis. "Madame C.J. Walker (1867-1919)". Retrieved 17 April 2015.[permanent dead link]
  7. "Madam C. J. Walker". Black Inventor. Adscape International, LLC. Archived from the original on 8 March 2012. Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  8. "Reading 3: The Philosophies of Madam Walker and J.C. Penney". Park Net. The National Park Service. Archived from the original on 11 June 2015. Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  9. A'Lelia Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker (New York; London: Scribner, 2001), p. 67
  10. "Obituary: Wealthiest Negress Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 April 2015.