Who Was Madam C.J. Walker?
Madam C.J. Walker invented a line of African American hair products after suffering from a scalp ailment that resulted in her own hair loss. She promoted her products by traveling around the country giving lecture-demonstrations and eventually established Madame C.J. Walker Laboratories to manufacture cosmetics and train sales beauticians.
Her business acumen led her to be one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire. She was also known for her philanthropic endeavors, including a donation toward the construction of an Indianapolis YMCA in 1913. Walker's life was portrayed in the 2020 TV show Self Made, with Octavia Spencer portraying Walker.
Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana. Her parents, Owen and Minerva, were enslaved and recently freed, and Sarah, who was their fifth child, was the first in her family to be free-born.
Minerva died in 1874 and Owen passed away the following year, both due to unknown causes, leaving Sarah an orphan at the age of seven. After her parents' passing, Sarah was sent to live with her sister, Louvinia, and her brother-in-law.
The three moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1877, where Sarah picked cotton and was likely employed doing household work, although no documentation exists verifying her employment at the time.
Daughter A'Lelia Walker
At age 14, to escape both her oppressive working environment and the frequent mistreatment she endured at the hands of her brother-in-law, Sarah married a man named Moses McWilliams. On June 6, 1885, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, A'Lelia.
When Moses died two years later, Sarah and A'Lelia moved to St. Louis, where Sarah's brothers had established themselves as barbers. There, Sarah found work as a washerwoman, earning $1.50 a day — enough to send her daughter to the city's public schools.
She also attended public night school whenever she could. While in St. Louis, Breedlove met husband Charles J. Walker, who worked in advertising and would later help promote her hair care business.
During the 1890s, Sarah developed a scalp disorder that caused her to lose much of her hair, and she began to experiment with both home remedies and store-bought hair care treatments in an attempt to improve her condition.
In 1905, she was hired as a commission agent by Annie Turnbo Malone — a successful, Black, hair-care product entrepreneur — and she moved to Denver, Colorado.
Madam C.J. Walker Company
While there, Sarah's husband, Charles, helped her create advertisements for a hair care treatment for African Americans that she was perfecting. Her husband also encouraged her to use the more recognizable name "Madam C.J. Walker," by which she was thereafter known.
In 1907 Walker and her husband traveled around the South and Southeast promoting her products and giving lecture demonstrations of her "Walker Method" — involving her own formula for pomade, brushing and the use of heated combs.
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 Madam 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 also 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.
A relentless 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 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 the social and political culture of the Harlem Renaissance. She founded philanthropies that included educational scholarships and donations to homes for the elderly, the NAACP, 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.
In 1918, at Irvington-on-Hudson — about 20 miles north of New York City in the Hudson Valley — Walker built an Italianate mansion she called Villa Lewaro. It was designed by Vertner Tandy, an accomplished African American architect.
Villa Lewaro was a gathering place for many luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
Walker died of hypertension on May 25, 1919, at age 51, at Villa Lewaro.
In 1981, the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company ceased operations. A line of cosmetics and hair-care products bearing the name Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture is available at Sephora retailers.
Walker left one-third of her estate to her daughter, who would also become well-known as an important part of the Harlem Renaissance, and the remainder to various charities. Walker's funeral took place at Villa Lewaro, and she was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.
Legacy and TV Show
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 Walker as part of its "Black Heritage" series.
Walker's life was portrayed in the 2020 TV show Self Made, with Octavia Spencer portraying Walker.
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