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Madam C.J. Walker was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. Her business was worth more than $1 million at the time of her death.
Madam C.J. Walker’s great-great granddaughter and biographer A’lelia Bundles speaks about how Madam Walker became a powerful entrepreneur in a male-dominated business world and her passion for training other women to become successful too.
Although Madam C.J. Walker was best known for her successful hair care business, she was also a passionate activist who used her power to raise political consciousness.
Madam C.J. Walker's great-great granddaughter and biographer A'Lelia Bundles speaks about Madam Walker's journey from a bleak childhood to becoming the first female self-made millionaire.
From her rough beginnings as an orphan, Madam CJ Walker went on to corner the market as an entrepreneur in black women's hair care and became the first self-made female millionaire.
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As profits continued to grow, in 1908 Walker opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh, and by 1910, when Walker transferred her business operations to Indianapolis, the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company had become wildly successful, with profits that were the modern-day equivalent of several million dollars. In Indianapolis, the company not only manufactured cosmetics,
but trained sales beauticians. These "Walker Agents" became well known throughout the black communities of the United States. In turn, they promoted Walker's philosophy of "cleanliness and loveliness" as a means of advancing the status of African-Americans. An innovator, Walker organized clubs and conventions for her representatives, which recognized not only successful sales, but also philanthropic and educational efforts among African-Americans.
In 1913, Walker and Charles divorced, and she traveled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean promoting her business and recruiting others to teach her hair care methods. While her mother traveled, A'Lelia Walker helped facilitate the purchase of property in Harlem, New York, recognizing that the area would be an important base for future business operations. In 1916, upon returning from her travels, Walker moved to her new townhouse in Harlem. From there, she would continue to operate her business, while leaving the day-to-day operations of her factory in Indianapolis to its forelady.
Walker quickly immersed herself in Harlem's social and political culture. She founded philanthropies that included educational scholarships and donations to homes for the elderly, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Conference on Lynching, among other organizations focused on improving the lives of African-Americans. She also donated the largest amount of money by an African-American toward the construction of an Indianapolis YMCA in 1913.
Madam C.J. Walker died of hypertension on May 25, 1919, at age 51, at the estate home she had built for herself in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. At the time of her death, Walker was sole owner of her business, which was valued at more than $1 million. Her personal fortune was estimated at between $600,000 and $700,000. Today, Walker is widely credited as the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire.
Walker left one-third of her estate to her daughter, A'Lelia Walker—who would also become well-known as an important part of the cultural Harlem Renaissance—and the remainder to various charities. Walker's funeral took place at her home, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington-on-Hudson, which was designated a National Historic Landmark, and she was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.
In 1927, the Walker Building, an arts center that Walker had begun work on before her death, was opened in Indianapolis. An important African-American cultural center for decades, it is now a registered National Historic Landmark. In 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp of Madam C.J. Walker as part of its "Black Heritage" series.
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Read On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by her great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles.
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