I’d never heard of Madam C.J. Walker until relatively recently. But if I’d known a black woman became a multimillionaire at the turn of the 20th century from a haircare invention, it would have made the idea of being an entrepreneur seem infinitly more possible.
To get an accurate picture of this extraordinary woman, I looked to Madam Walker’s biographer, A’Lelia Bundles, who just so happens to be her great great grandaughter. Although A’Leilaadmitted to having little interest in her ancestor at first, a gentle prod from a mentor opened the door to research that provided both adventure and opportunity, and finally, the biography, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.
To celebrate Black History Month, I asked A’Leila for a little more insight into Madam C.J. Walker’s story.
Hair’s Brush with Politics
Madam Walker’s “primary goal was to develop a shampoo to clean the scalp, and an ointment to heal scalp disease and help regrow hair,” A’Lelia explained, adding that people often make the mistake of believing she invented the hot comb for straightening African-American hair.
Because straightening African-American hair is highly politicized, it could be one of the reasons she faded from the forefront of the historical record. Instead of being seen as a champion of her race and gender, Walker was erroneously viewed as a traitor of sorts in trying to make African-American looks conform to white standards of beauty.
As Walker’s fame and success grew, it’s only then that she began adding more products to her line, including hot combs and hair straighteners. “This was especially true as the 1920s approached and more European images of black women became the currency of the time,” A’Lelia said. (Think Josephine Baker.).
Learn about Walker’s success through the words of her great-great granddaughter, A’leila:
But Madam Walker’s hair product line was only part of her innovative vision; she was also a very forward-thinking employer. By the time she had moved her headquarters to Indianapolis, racism and the Klu Klux Klan were beginning to rear their ugly heads, so Walker designed her workplace as a one-stop shop for all her employees and customers: a theater, drugstore and beauty shop on the first floor; doctors, dentists and factory on the second floor; offices for the NAACP on the third floor; a ballroom and Walker corporate offices on the fourth.
In honor of her historic and entrepreneurial role in the city, the Madame C.J. Walker Theater Center in Indianapolis continues that part of her legacy.
Madam Walker at the wheel of her own car, circa 1916.
Life Lessons from Madam Walker
Madam Walker may have lived in the past but the lessons from her story resonate now:
• She thought BIG, and pursued her goals without limit. “People closest to you can be your biggest obstacles,” A’lelia said, explaining that Madam Walker’s husband was satisfied when they were making only $10 a day. She later divorced him when she discovered he was having an affair with one of her agents.
• She shared her success. Providing hair care was important to build black women’s self-esteem, but so was giving them the opportunity to support themselves and earn a living wage. Madam Walker was generous to charities and not only did she give prizes to her best sales agents, she also gave prizes to the women who were the most philanthropic in their communities.
• She stood up for herself. “As a woman, she wasn’t always taken seriously,” A’Lelia said, citing Booker T. Washington‘s 1912 entrepreneurship conference, where the millionaire Walker wasn’t even invited to sit on the dais. She had to make her case from the audience, and make it she did.
For more information on A’Leila Bundles biography of Madam C.J. Walker and other projects she’s working on, go to aleliabundles.com.