1867 – 1919
Today I want to share with you the background story for a woman who many of us still refer to often, and reasoning behind without whom we’d all look a hot mess!! Lol So why was Madam C. J.Walker so important to black culture? As I share her story, it will become clear. (To most. Lol).
Madam C.J. Walker: Legacy
Sarah Breedlove, known as Madam C.J. Walker was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and a political and social activist. She is known for creating hair products for black hair, she is also known as the first black female millionaire.
How did she get her footing in hair care? In those times black women experienced bad dandruff, baldness, and hair loss just to name a few. We have to remember there weren’t luxuries then like the ones we’ve become so accustomed to having today. In those days harsh chemicals such as lye were used in soaps to cleanse hair and wash clothes. Other contributing factors many similar to ones still relevant today like poor diets, and illness. What also caused these hair issues was infrequent bathing and hair washing during a time when most Americans lacked indoor plumbing, central heating and electricity.
Sarah first learned about hair care from her brothers who were barbers in St. Louis. She became a commission agent selling for Annie Turnbo Malone, an African American hair-care entrepreneur and owner of the Poro Company. While working for Malone, who would later become Walker’s largest rival in the hair-care industry, Sarah began to adapt her knowledge of hair and hair products to develop her own product line.
Developing her business/brand
In July of 1905 she took her daughter and moved to Denver Colorado where she continued to sell products for Malone while simultaneously developing her own line of hair care products and developing her business. Following her marriage to Charles Walker in 1906, she became known as Madam C. J. Walker and marketed herself as an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams. (“Madam” was adopted from women pioneers of the French beauty industry.) Her husband, who was also her business partner, provided advice on advertising and promotion; Sarah sold her products door to door, teaching other black women how to groom and style their hair.
In 1906 Walker put her daughter in charge of the mail order operation in Denver while she and her husband traveled throughout the southern and eastern United States to expand the business.
1. In 1908 she and her husband relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where they opened a beauty parlor and established Lelia College to train “hair culturists”, now referred to as hair dressers or hair stylists.
2. In 1910 she established a new base in Indianapolis. She built a factory, hair salon, and beauty school to train her sales agents, and added a laboratory to help with research. Many of her company’s employees, including those in key management and staff positions, were women. To increase her company’s sales force, Walker trained other women to become “beauty culturists” using “The Walker System”, her method of grooming that was designed to promote hair growth and to condition the scalp through the use of her products.
Her method of grooming that was designed to promote hair growth and to condition the scalp through the use of her products. Walker’s system included a shampoo, a pomade stated to help hair grow, strenuous brushing, and applying iron combs to hair. This method claimed to make lackluster and brittle hair become soft and luxurious.
3. In 1913 her daughter A’lelia persuaded her to establish an office and beauty salon in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.
4. By 1917 the company claimed to have trained nearly 20,000 women. Her sales team wore white shirts and black skirts as their uniforms and would carry her product in tin cans with her image embossed on them. Walker understood the power of advertising and brand awareness. Heavy advertising, primarily in African American newspapers and magazines, in addition to Walker’s frequent travels to promote her products, helped make Walker and her products well known in the United States. Walker became even more widely known by the 1920s as her business market expanded beyond the United States to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica.
In addition to grooming techniques, Walker also taught women how to budget, build their own businesses, and become financially independent. Inspired by the National Association of Colored Women, Walker began organizing her sales agents at state clubs and local ones too.
Walker’s daughter A’Lelia
The result was the establishment of the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C.J. Walker agents. During the convention Walker rewarded agents for being top recruiters, for selling the most product, and also rewarded those who made the most charitable contributions in their communities.
Activism & Philanthropy
1. In 1912 Walker addressed an annual gathering of the National Negro Business League. She also helped raise funds for a branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association or as we know it, the YMCA. Walker also donated scholarship funds to the Tuskegee Institute.
2. During World War I Walker was a leader in the Circle for Negro War Relief and advocated for the establishment of a training camp for black army officers.
3. In 1917 she joined the executive committee of New York chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which organized the Silent Protest Parade on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. The public demonstration drew more than 8,000 African Americans to protest a riot in East Saint Louis that killed thirty-nine African Americans.
4. In 1918 the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) honored Walker for making the largest individual contribution to help preserve Frederick Douglass’s Anacostia house. Prior to her death in 1919, Walker pledged $5,000 (the equivalent of about $65,000 in 2012) to the NAACP’s anti-Lynching fund. At the time it was the largest gift from an individual that the NAACP had ever received. Walker bequeathed nearly $100,000 to orphanages, institutions, and individuals; her will directed two-thirds of future net profits of her estate to charity.
Marriage and family
In 1882, at the age of fourteen, Sarah married Moses McWilliams, possibly to escape mistreatment from her brother-in-law. Sarah and Moses had one daughter, Lelia McWilliams, born on June 6, 1885. When Moses died in 1887, Sarah was twenty; Lelia was two years old. Sarah remarried in 1894, but left her second husband, John Davis, around 1903 and moved to Denver, Colorado, in 1905.
In January 1906, Sarah married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman she had known in Missouri. Through this marriage, she became known as Madam C. J. Walker. The couple divorced in 1912; Charles died in 1926. Lelia McWilliams adopted her stepfather’s surname and became known as A’Lelia Walker.
Walker died on May 25, 1919, from kidney failure and complications of hypertension at the age of fifty-one. Walker’s remains are interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City. At the time of her death Walker was considered to be the wealthiest African American woman in America. She was eulogized as the first female self-made millionaire in America, but Walker’s estate was only worth an estimated $600,000 (approximately $8 million in present-day dollars) upon her death.