“Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face. I feel that I am in a business that is a credit to the womanhood of our race.”
Madame C. J. Walker (Dec 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919)
Sarah Breedlove, famously known today as Madam C.J Walker, was a woman born of slave parents who today holds the Guinness World Record as the first female black American millionaire with a net worth that is said to have exceeded a million by the time of her death. She was the 5th of 6 children born to Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove, who by the time of Sarah’s birth, had recently been emancipated from slavery on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana. By age 7 Sarah was orphaned, working in the cotton fields and living with her older sister Louvenia and her husband. She married Moses McWilliams at 14 in order to escape her abusive brother-in-law, and the two moved to Mississippi where they would later be blessed with a daughter. A’Lelia was two when her father died, Sarah only 20 when she lost her first husband, she then moved to St Louis and became a washer woman and a cook in order to make ends meet. “I had little or no opportunity when I started out in life, having been left an orphan and being without a mother or father since I was seven years of age,” she would often recount. However, what would change the tide for a woman of such misfortune was not a sudden materialisation of opportunities, she had to work and create her own opportunities. Madam C.J Walker approached her life and her business with a passion and a blatant disregard for the concept of failure, no matter how high she got, she always aimed higher despite all that befell her in her younger years, and that is the reason Madam Walker was, is and will always be hailed a Self-Made Millionaire – because she did herself!
“I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it!”
There are scarcely many stories that rival the adventure of humble Sarah Breedlove to the making of renowned Madam C.J Walker; business woman, philanthropist and activist. When she was younger, Sarah only had three months of a formal education which constituted Sunday school literacy lessons from her church, she had different plans for her daughter though – A’Lelia would get proper education, even as Sarah was only earning about a dollar a day at the time. In St Louis, she joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she met prominent black men and women whose success and education would inspire and influence her journey. In 1894 Sarah Breedlove married her second husband, John Davis; an unpleasant arrangement that later ended in divorce. Now poor, stressed, overworked and using harmful detergents every day, Sarah Breedlove started developing a bad scalp condition that caused her hair loss and took her confidence along with it. It was Annie Turbo Malone’s “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower” that cured her; consequently she joined Mrs Malone’s team of black women sales agents and finally realised her dream and true calling. In 1905, Sarah left the team and moved to Denver, Colorado where, with all she had learned about haircare from her previous employer; she started experimenting with different ingredients and eventually created her own line of hair care products. The year 1906 saw her married to Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman and she renamed herself “Madam C.J Walker.” At this time Madam Walker, with the help of Charles’ advertising skills and $1.25 in her pocket, launched her line of hair care products and straighteners under the name “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” Beyond the advertising and promotions, Walker did door to door sales promotions where she taught other black women how to take care of their own hair and she travelled across the country to promote her product and expand her business. Two years later, Madam Walker moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where she opened a beauty parlour and the ‘Lelia College of Beauty Culture’ where she trained her haircare agents.
“I endeavour to provide employment to hundreds of women of my race.”
Madam C.J. Walker believed in promoting economic independence for black women in her country, at this point she had employed a large network of well-paid sales agents for whom she established the “Walker System,” that constituted various training programs. Attracted to the emerging prosperous black community in Indianapolis, she relocated the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing headquarters there in 1910. Here she later built a factory, hair salon, beauty school, and a laboratory for research – meanwhile she assembled a staff that would help with managing the growing business, the majority of which were women. In 1912, Madam and Mr C.J Walker divorced due to his infidelity and increased alcoholism. At this point Madam C.J Walker was at the height of her career, she went on to train and employ over 40,000 black women and men in the US, Central America, and the Caribbean. She showed black women how to budget, build their own businesses and encouraged financial independence. In 1917 Madam Walker established the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents which held its first conference in Philadelphia, this was one of the first national gatherings of female entrepreneurs to discuss business and commerce and philanthropy.
“I have made it possible for many colored women to abandon the wash-tub for more pleasant and profitable occupation.”
Growing up as she did, Madam Walker knew first-hand the struggle of being a poor black woman in America. As her wealth and fame increased, so did her activism and philanthropy extend. Madam C.J. Walker worked hard to uplift her race and to help them achieve full citizenship in the US. She help raise funds for the YMCA (Young Man’s Christian Association), the Indianapolis’s Flanner House, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church; Mary McLeod Bethune’s Daytona Education, Industrial School for Negro Girls and many other organisations that where centred on helping African Americans through educations and social services. Since she was denied education, she was most particularly adamant in her educational benefaction for the black community. For social causes, she gave to organisations that responded to the basic needs of African Americans such as to discrimination, food, healthcare, housing, day-care, and community development. Walker’s company was founded by African Americans for the benefit of their own community in spite of Jim Crow’s restrictive laws on labour and education. Her network of Beauty schools provided gainful employment for many black women, affording them the opportunity to play their part in giving back to the black community through charity and activism. Madam Walker became publically involved in political, social and economic matters; her company was instrumental in supporting black soldiers in World War 1 and pledged the single largest contribution to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund at the time. Walker gave almost $100,000 to orphanages, institutions, and individuals; even her will directed two-thirds of the future net profits of her estate to charity.
“You might say that I was the first and caused others to awaken to the sense of their duty in helping deserving causes for the benefit of the race.”
Madam C. J. Walker died on the 25th of May, 1919. Her early life serves as an example of a black woman’s historical experience of America. “She represents black women’s daily ways of giving in their communities to survive in America, and to express and preserve their dignity and humanity,” philanthropy expert Tyrone McKinley Freeman explains. She introduced a different, more accessible way to do philanthropy, for anyone who is ready to give. She challenged the notion that one must be excessively rich later on in life to become a philanthropist. Anyone can give with whatever resources they happen to have when there is a need, and as one’s resources increase, so should one’s giving. Madam Walker’s life and legacy teaches us the principle of hard work and determination even through the face of adversity. She teaches us to not limit ourselves according to whatever restrictions life has in place. She teaches us that success and growth has no true value until they are used as a tool to serve and uplift others. She teaches us to be brave, to walk away from anything that threatens to hold us back. To surround ourselves with individuals who inspire us to be the best versions of ourselves we could possibly be. Nothing is too big for an ardent dreamer who is willing to put in the work. From slavery to glory, another great black woman’s story!
“Girls and women of our race must not be afraid to take hold of business endeavour and, by patient industry, close economy, determined effort, and close application to business, wring success out of a number of business opportunities that lie at their doors.”