From activists, authors and business leaders, there are a large number of African American women whose contributions and lives have been overlooked in the past. It’s time to give recognition to their efforts and celebrate their lives in honor of Black History Month. There is so much to learn about the struggles and strives of these inspiring ladies.
There’s one name in particular that resonates with me and deserves much recognition for her contribution to the beauty industry and for that, I dedicate this blog post to her. Madam C.J Walker as my tribute for Black History Month.
“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.
-Madam Walker, National Negro Business League Convention, July 1912
Sarah Breedlove, who would later be famously known as Madam C.J. Walker, was born in 1867, the first child in her family born into freedom after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Before the end of the Civil War, her parents and five older siblings had been slaves on a plantation in Louisiana. This daughter of sharecroppers, transformed her life from an uneducated farm laborer and laundress to one of the most successful self-made women entrepreneurs of her time, in the 20th century.
By the end of her life, Madam CJ Walker had gone out to become not only the wealthiest black woman in America but also the first ever self-made American female millionaire!
Sarah’s parents died when she was only 7 years old, and she moved in with her sister and brother-in-law and soon began working to help support their family. To escape her brother-in-law’s brutal abuse, she got married at the young age of 14. Her husband died when Sarah was 20, leaving her to raise their 2-year-old daughter A’Lelia by herself.
Sarah suffered from scalp ailment and began experiencing hair loss at a young age. Hair loss was a very common problem at the time: people found it difficult to bathe and wash their hair as often as we do today because most lacked access to things like indoor plumbing, central heating, and electricity. This phase was the beginning of many changes in her life.
Sarah began experimenting with different products and home remedies, eventually creating her own line of African American shampoos and hair treatments in 1905.
She named her company after her husband at the time, Charles Joseph Walker, and began
selling products such as “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” and “Madam Walker’s Vegetable Shampoo”.
Designed specifically for black women, her hair products were completely unique at the time. She began selling her products door-to-door, and teaching the women she met all about hair and scalp treatments.
Her business took off and was so successful that she was soon selling her products across the United States. Sarah’s daughter A’Lelia ran a mail-order business from Denver while Madam Walker travelled around the country giving lecture demonstrations of “the Walker method”, involving her own formula for pomade, brushing and the use of heated combs.
She finally settled in Indianapolis where she opened her own factory where she manufactured more cosmetics and trained beauticians. After establishing her headquarters there, she expanded her company internationally to Jamaica, Cuba, Costa Rica, Panama and Haiti. Her company employed thousands of people, including many African-American women, and was the largest African-American owned business in the nation.
Not only was Madam Walker creating an incredibly successful business against all odds, she also used her wealth to oppose racism and support institutions to assist African-Americans. She said that she wanted to be a millionaire not for herself, but for the good she could do with it
Apart from giving talks at various conventions about racial oppression, she also had the following achievements:
- Made the largest contribution to save the house of Frederick Douglass
- Donated moneyto the NAACP, the YMCA, and to black schools, organizations, individuals, orphanages, and retirement homes
- Spent $10,000 every year for the education of young black men and women
- Encouraged political activismin her employees
- Joined the leaders of NAACP in their efforts to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime, even going herself to the White House to petition in favor of anti-lynching legislation
Today there are two National Historic Landmarks associated with Madam Walker: her New York estate called Villa Lewaro, and the Madam Walker Theatre Center, built in Indianapolis in 1928, which is now a cultural arts center. She also appears on a commemorative United States Postal Service stamp, to honor her legacy as part of its Black Heritage Series.