African-American Businesswomen in the Jim Crow Era

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Maggie Lena Walker

Maggie Lena Walker. Public Domain

 Entrepreneur and social activist Maggie Lena Walker's famous quote is "I am of the opinion [that] if we can catch the vision, in a few years we shall be able to enjoy the fruits from this effort and its attendant responsibilities, through untold benefits reaped by the youth of the race."

As the first American woman--of any race--to be a bank president, Walker was a trailblazer. She  inspired many African-American men and women to become self-sufficient entrepreneurs.

As a follower of Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of "cast down your bucket where you are," Walker was a lifelong resident of Richmond, working to bring change to African-Americans throughout Virginia.

In 1902, Walker established the St. Luke Herald, an African-American newspaper in Richmond.

Following the financial success of the St. Luke Herald, Walker established the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank.

Walker became the first women in the United States to found a bank.

The purpose of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was to provide loans to members of the African-American community. In 1920, the bank helped members of the community buy at least 600 houses in Richmond. The success of the bank helped the Independent Order of St. Luke continue to grow. In 1924, it was reported that the order had 50,000 members, 1500 local chapters, and estimated assets of at least $400,000.

During the Great Depression, St. Luke Penny Savings merged with two other banks in Richmond to become The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. 

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Annie Turnbo Malone

Annie Turnbo Malone. Public Domain

 African-American women used to put ingredients such as goose fat, heavy oils and other products to on their hair as a styling method. Their hair might have appeared shiny but these ingredients were damaging their hair and scalp. Years before Madam C.J. Walkerbegan selling her products, Annie Turnbo Malone invented a hair care product line that revolutionized African-American hair care.

After moving to Lovejoy, Illinois, Malone created a line of hair straighteners, oils and other products that promoted hair growth. Naming the products “Wonderful Hair Grower,” Malone sold her product door-to-door.

By 1902, Malone relocated to St. Louis and hired three assistants. She continued to grow her business by selling her products door-to-door and by providing free hair treatments to reluctant women. Within two years Malone’s business had grown so much that she was able to open a salon, advertise in African-American newspapers throughout the United States and  recruit more African-American women to sell her products. She also continued to travel throughout the United States to sell her products.

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Madame CJ Walker

Portrait of Madam C.J. Walker. Public Domain

Madam C.J. Walker once said,  “I am 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.” After creating a line of hair care products to promote healthy hair for African-American women, Walker became the first African-American self-made millionaire. 

And Walker used her wealth to help uplift African-Americans during the Jim Crow Era. 

In the late 1890s, Walker developed a severe case of dandruff and lost her hair. She began experimenting with  home remedies to create a treatment that would make her hair grow.

In 1905 Walker began working for  Annie Turnbo Malone, as a saleswoman. Walker continued to create her own products and she decided to work under the name  Madam C.J. Walker.

Within two years, the Walker and her husband was traveling throughout the southern United States to market the products and teach women the “Walker Method” which included using pomade and heated combs.

She was able to open a factory and establish a beauty school in Pittsburgh. Two years later, Walker moved her business to Indianapolis and named it the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. In addition to manufacturing products, the company also boasted a team of trained beauticians who sold the products. Known as “Walker Agents,” these women spread the word in African-American communities throughout the United States of “cleanliness and loveliness.”

 In 1916 she moved to Harlem and continued to run her business. The daily operations of the factory still took place in Indianapolis.

As Walker’s business grew, her agents were organized into local and state clubs. In 1917 she held the Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention in Philadelphia. Considered one of the first meetings for women entrepreneurs in the United States, Walker rewarded her team for their sales acumen and inspired them to become active participants in politics and social justice.

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Lewis, Femi. "African-American Businesswomen in the Jim Crow Era." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Lewis, Femi. (2020, August 26). African-American Businesswomen in the Jim Crow Era. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "African-American Businesswomen in the Jim Crow Era." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).