Updated: Feb 5
Today we're talking about one of the first known Black women, who became a self made millionaire and founded her own business empire, Sarah Breedlove a.k.a Madam C.J. Walker. She was a philanthropist, political and social activist, that championed causes that benefited Black Americans.
She was born December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana to Owen and Minerva Breedlove. One of six children, born free, right after the end of the Civil War. Her parents and 4 of her older siblings were born enslaved. Her parents died while she was young from common diseases like cholera which was a national epidemic at the time. Orphaned at a young age, she moved to Mississippi to stay with relatives. She had to start working very early in life as a child domestic servant. She only had three months of formal education and learned to read during Sunday school literacy classes at the church she attended.
Sarah married her first husband at the age of 14 to escape abuse. One daughter came from that marriage, A’lelia Williams in 1885. A’Lelia would become an integral figure in her mothers business empire later on. After her first husband died, she remarried again but left him quickly. It was her third husband, who she married in 1906, Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman from St. Louis who’s name she took when she went into business for herself and became Madam C.J. Walker. They divorced in 1912, but the name stuck as it is how she became known throughout history. Her daughter changed her name as well, becoming A’Lelia Walker.
Sarah moved out to St. Louis in 1888, where she found work as a laundress. Her brothers lived there and it was them who first taught her about hair care, since they were barbers. Due to the low wages she earned as a laundress, she was focused on earning a decent living to give her daughter better opportunities than what she had. Opportunity came out of necessity, since many people at the time suffered from scalp ailments, like baldness, dandruff and skin disorders due to harsh products on the hair. Lye, harsh soaps and cleaning products were major contributors to this as well as poor diets, infrequent bathing and hair washing because most people in America didn’t have indoor plumbing and electricity.
At the World’s Fair at St. Louis in 1904, she became a commission sales agent for Annie Malone who was already a successful cosmetics entrepreneur and self-made millionaire who owned and operated the Poro Company. While working for Annie Malone she learned a lot about the business and adopted many of Annie Malone business practices. She used it to start her own line of products and would implement all of what she learned from Annie Malone into her own business. This included the hair care formula, the look and dress of the sales agents and how she structured her business. It was because of this, she was accused by Annie Malone of stealing her formula, which caused a rift between the two and splintering their respective empires.
Sarah started off by marketing herself as an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetics creams. She sold her products from door to door, showing her customers in the comfort of their homes how to use the products in styling and grooming hair. She ran her business with her family. Her husband was her business partner, and handled advertising and promotion. Her daughter was put in charge of the mail order operation of the business. Sarah and Charles would go on tours throughout the south to expand their customer base outside of St. Louis and Denver. As the business grew, they relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where they opened up another beauty parlor, and a college that would train what she called “hair culturist." She furthered this by opening training programs for her licensed sales agents, all who earned healthy commissions. She was a strong advocate of economic independence for Black women.
Sarah’s business continued to grow to where she was able to expand further to Indianapolis, Indiana, where she established her headquarters, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She purchased a house and factory, expanding further to include a hair salon, another beauty school and a lab to help with research and development of new products. She put together some of the most competent people to help with growing the company internationally and put women, Black women specifically, in key positions of management.
Sarah created what she called “The Walker System,” which was her method of grooming that would promote hair growth and conditioning of the scalp. The system included a shampoo, pomade, strenuous brushing and applying iron hot combs to the hair to make it soft and luxurious. Despite other cosmetic entrepreneurs and companies that were very successful, Madam Walker’s company continued to do well and grow.
Madam Walker created thousands of jobs for women through her school programs and as sales agents. Over 20,000 women in the United States and the Caribbean sold Walkers products door to door making her product well known in the U.S. and internationally. Her promotional and advertising awareness was way ahead of its time. All her products had her image on it, which popularized her brand even further. Her company’s business market grew to Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica.
Madam Walker’s legacy is solidified through history as a picture of success. She was one of the first people to own several cars, the Ford Model T (one of the first car models made) being one of them. She had a full time chauffeur and several properties that became landmarks. She helped many Black women to build their own businesses and become financially independent. She helped raise funds for the Black community including the YMCA, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Indianapolis Flanner House, HBCU Bethune Cookman University, Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina and many many more.
She rubbed shoulders with Black leaders and luminaries such as Booker T Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune to name a few. She commissioned her landmark home to be designed by the first licensed Black architect in New York City in 1917, always committed to putting money in another Black Man or Women’s pocket. From the NAACP to the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, she gave so that these organizations could deliver on their promises to advance the Black community. She gave nearly two thirds of her fortune to such charities.
Madam Walker died May 25, 1919 at the age of 51. Although she didn’t live as long a life as many of her contemporaries, she contributed so much to the Black community. For many years she was known as the first Black women to be a millionaire, even though there were others before her and around the same time that attained this feat, she was an inspiration to future generations of Black women who later opened up their own beauty salons and made successes of themselves. There’s so much more that can be said of her influence and accomplishments, I encourage you to discover what wasn’t covered in this post on your own and be inspired by her journey. Madam Walker is truly an example of Black Excellence.
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