Born December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana, Sarah Breedlove, the daughter of former slaves Owen & Minerva Breedlove, was destined for greatness. She later changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker and broke through what was considered a normal lifestyle for the times. Her family was poor and both of her parents died by the time she was 7 years old.
She was taken in by her older sister, Louvenia and a few years later they moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Sarah sustained cruelty from Louvenia’s husband during her stay with them. At the tender age of 14 to free herself of abuse she married a man named McWilliams. In 1885 she became the mother to daughter, Lelia. Just two years after her daughter's birth McWilliams was killed.
After his death Sarah moved to St. Louis, Missouri where she worked as a washerwoman and did other domestic work. Through her hard work, she managed to see Lelia graduate from the St. Louis public schools and later attend Knoxville College, a black private college in Tennessee.
Building a Beauty Empire
- During the 1890s, Sarah began to suffer from a scalp ailment that caused her to lose most of her hair. She consulted her brothers for advice and also experimented with many homemade remedies and store-bought products, including those made by Annie Malone, another black woman entrepreneur. In 1905 Sarah moved to Denver as a sales agent for Malone, then married her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, a St. Louis newspaperman. After changing her name to “Madam” C. J. Walker, she founded her own business and began selling Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula which she claimed had been revealed to her in a dream. Madam Walker, by the way, did NOT invent the straightening comb or chemical perms, though many people incorrectly believe that to be true.
- To promote her products, the new “Madam C.J. Walker” traveled for a year and a half on a dizzying crusade throughout the heavily black South and Southeasta selling her products door to door, demonstrating her scalp treatments in churches and lodges, and devising sales and marketing strategies. In 1908, she temporarily moved her base to Pittsburgh where she opened Lelia College to train Walker “hair culturists.”
- By early 1910 she had settled in Indianapolis, then the nation’s largest inland manufacturing center, where she built a factory, hair and manicure salon and another training school. Less than a year after her arrival, Walker grabbed national headlines in the black press when she contributed $1,000 to the building fund of the “colored” YMCA in Indianapolis.
- In 1913, while Walker traveled to Central America and the Caribbean to expand her business, her daughter A’Lelia, moved into a fabulous new Harlem townhouse and Walker Salon, designed by black architect, Vertner Tandy. “There is nothing to equal it,” she wrote to her attorney, F.B. Ransom. “Not even on Fifth Avenue.”
Beauty AND Civil Rights Pioneer
- Walker herself moved to New York in 1916, leaving the day-to-day operations of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis to Ransom and Alice Kelly, her factory forelady and a former school teacher. She continued to oversee the business and to work in the New York office. Once in Harlem she quickly became involved in Harlem’s social and political life, taking special interest in the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement to which she contributed $5,000.
- Madam Walker was a member of the 1917 Negro Silent Protest Parade committee. In July 1917, when a white mob murdered more than three dozen blacks in East St. Louis, Illinois, Walker joined a group of Harlem leaders who visited the White House to present a petition advocating federal anti-lynching legislation.
- As her business continued to grow, Walker organized her agents into local and state clubs. Her Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention in Philadelphia in 1917 must have been one of the first national meetings of businesswomen in the country. Walker used the gathering not only to reward her agents for their business success, but to encourage their political activism as well. “This is the greatest country under the sun,” she told them. “But we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice. We should protest until the American sense of justice is so aroused that such affairs as the East St. Louis riot be forever impossible.”
- By the time she died at her estate, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, she had helped create the role of the 20th Century, self-made American businesswoman; established herself as a pioneer of the modern black hair-care and cosmetics industry; and set standards in the African-American community for corporate and community giving.
- Tenacity and perseverance, faith in herself and in God, quality products and “honest business dealings” were the elements and strategies she prescribed for aspiring entrepreneurs who requested the secret to her rags-to-riches ascent. “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she once commented. “And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.” https://napturalroots.com/madame-c-j-walker-beauty-pioneer/