Madam C.J. Walker rides high after starting on the road to hair product sales in the early 1900s in St. Louis. View Enlarged Image
In August 1917, Philadelphia hosted one of the most remarkable gatherings in American history. More than 200 representatives of the Madam Walker beauty company descended on the Union Baptist Church for a Beauty Culturists Union convention.
The culturists were black women who sold hair products to other women. Philadelphia’s mayor delivered opening remarks.
And while awaiting comments from the firm’s founder, Madam C.J. Walker, the culturists shared stirring stories of their own.
One, the president of the Philadelphia Union of Walker Hair Culturists, “told her colleagues that she had been a $5-a-week servant when she met Madam Walker. ‘Her income (now) is $250 a week,’ reported the Kansas City Star,” wrote Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, in “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.”
Telling It Straight
When Walker rose for the convention’s keynote address, she praised her agents’ financial triumphs. She delivered another message as well, urging the crowd to cherish love of country — “after all, this is the greatest country under the sun” — but demand justice when wrongs were committed.
Walker was referring to recent race riots in St. Louis, where about 100 blacks had died. After her remarks, the representatives sent a telegram to President Wilson asking for legislation to avoid “a recurrence of such disgraceful affairs.”
“With that gesture, the association had become what perhaps no other currently existing group could claim,” wrote Bundles. “American women entrepreneurs organized to use their money and their numbers to assert their political will.”
Built a retail empire through a business model that encouraged other women to profit as well.
Overcame: Humble beginnings that included no formal education.
Lesson: Work hard in a spirit of generosity.
“I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavor to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race.”
The origins of their leader made their action all the more special. Walker described herself as “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.”
Walker (1867-1919) was born Sarah Breedlove to parents who were freed from slavery as the Civil War ended. Owen and Minerva still lived on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. Both died by the time Sarah was 7, and she went to live with her sister Louvenia and a brother-in-law, Jesse Powell.
Jesse was cruel, as Walker later described him, though she never explained exactly how. “Rather than be destroyed, Sarah learned to turn her vulnerability into resolve and resilience,” wrote Bundles. “Her determination to escape was her most reliable asset.”
It all came from Walker being “courageous,” Bundles told IBD.
Just 14, Sarah married Moses McWilliams, about whom nothing is known. Three years later she gave birth to Lelia, and a few years after that, Moses died.
Sarah immediately made plans to join her older brothers in St. Louis, arriving in 1889 to find a thriving black populace. Her brothers were making good money as barbers, with a predominantly white clientele, Bundles wrote.
Walker’s lifestyle was humble. She rented a room and began working as a laundress. She also became active in church, where she found a supportive community of middle-class women who took her in and transformed her. “Those women’s mission was to embrace women who needed assistance,” Bundles said. “They gave her a vision of herself as something other than an illiterate washerwoman.”
It took several years before an opportunity presented itself. It came while Walker suffered another indignity. Her hair was falling out. That was common for women in those days, Bundles wrote, “due usually to a combination of infrequent washing, illness, high fever, scalp disease, low-protein diets and damaging hair treatments.”
The solution to both her problems, Walker later said, came to her in a dream. “A big black man” appeared to her with a list of ingredients to mix together and apply to her scalp. She later claimed to send away to Africa for the ingredients — possibly including coconut oil, wrote Bundles — and applied them to her scalp.
“In a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out,” Walker related. She had stumbled onto a fix for her hair problem — plus an ingenious marketing campaign that appealed to black women on a cosmetic and political level. She offered her products to women not to straighten their hair like white women but to heal it.
She started selling her products, which included shampoo, salves and a pressing oil, in 1904 in St. Louis.
Then she made a fresh start in Denver in 1905. She went door to door, keeping up a grueling pace.
Wilma Moore is a senior archivist at the Indiana Historical Society, where Walker’s papers draw the most interest of all collections.
Moore is struck by Walker’s force of will. “This was a woman that was working very hard at a time when things (such as advertising) weren’t always convenient,” she told IBD. “Just the fact that she was able to accomplish what she did took a lot of raw passion as well as hard work.”
In Denver, Sarah married Charles Joseph Walker, a barber, and renamed herself Madam C.J. Walker. Soon her business was growing strongly enough through direct sales and mail order that she eyed national expansion.
With Charles, she began to travel in 1906, first in the Deep South and then farther afield, from California to Maryland. In 1907, according to Bundles’ book, she took in $3,652, or $93,400 in today’s money, after years of netting little more than $300 as a washerwoman. In 1908, her take nearly doubled.
To boost her firm’s expansion, Walker trained sales agents, starting with several dozen in Pittsburgh in 1908, even offering some diplomas. Then she turned to Indianapolis, the geographical center of the country and a manufacturing hub, and made it her headquarters.
She settled there in 1910. She was rich enough to buy a $10,000 (nearly $250,000 today) two-story home and begin developing a factory, laboratory and salon. She also dived into community affairs, donating $1,000 to build a YMCA.
While Walker is remembered for her wealth and business acumen, what students of her life often note is how generous she was to others — with money and opportunity.
“She was not only creative enough to do things, to get things started and moving, but she also excited other people, and she had a notion of helping women to create opportunities for themselves,” Moore told IBD. “She was a Renaissance woman.”
In 1913, she divorced Charles Walker but kept his name. Lelia had relocated to Harlem, which was becoming the heart of black culture. Walker traveled even more extensively for work, often staying with her daughter before constructing a mansion just north of Manhattan. Her Irvington estate, like Lelia’s Harlem home, was designed by Vertner Tandy, one of the first licensed black architects in New York state.
All the while, Walker devoted herself to social causes, including donating to and speaking on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s anti-lynching campaign, on her mind when she addressed her agents in Philadelphia in 1917.
Walker died two years later at age 51 of kidney failure and other complications due to hypertension. At the time, her estate was worth today’s equivalent of $8.5 million.
“She’s a great American rags-to-riches story who transformed herself in the great American tradition,” Bundles said. “She made a lot of money, but what makes her legacy more important is that she used that money to try to help women become financially independent.”