Madam C.J. Walker: Pioneer in the Black Hair Care Industry

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Portrait of Madam C.J. Walker. Public Domain

Overview

Entrepreneur and philanthropist 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.

Early Life

“I am not ashamed of my humble beginning. Don’t think because you have to go down in the washtub that you are any less of a lady!”

Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in Louisiana. Her parents, Owen and Minerva, were former slaves who worked as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation.

By the age of seven Walker was orphaned and sent to live with her sister, Louvinia.

At the age of 14, Walker married her first husband, Moses McWilliams. The couple had a daughter, A’Lelia. Two years later, Moses died and Walker moved to St. Louis. Working as a washerwoman, Walker made $1.50 a day. She used this money to send her daughter to public school. While living in St. Louis, Walker met her second husband, Charles J. Walker.

Budding Entrepreneur

“I got my start by giving myself a start.”

When Walker developed a severe case of dandruff in the late 1890s, she began losing her hair.

As a result, Walker began experimenting with various home remedies to create a treatment that would make her hair grow. By 1905 Walker was working as a saleswoman for Annie Turnbo Malone, an African-American businesswoman. Moving to Denver, Walker worked for Malone’s company and continued to develop her own products.

Her husband, Charles designed advertisements for the products. The couple then decided to use the name Madam C.J. Walker.

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

The Walker Empire

“There is no royal follower-strewn path to success. 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.”

By 1908 Walker’s profits were so great that she was able to open a factory and establish a beauty school in Pittsburgh. Two years later, Walker relocated 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.”

Walker and Charles divorced in 1913. Walker travelled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean marketing her business and recruiting women to teach others about her hair care products. In 1916 when Walker returned, 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.

Philanthropy

“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.”

Walker and her daughter, A’Lelia were both heavily involved in the social and political culture of Harlem. Walker established several foundations that provided educational scholarships, monetary assistance for the elderly.

In Indianapolis, Walker provided substantial financial support to build a black YMCA. Walker was also opposed to lynching and began working with the NAACP and the National Conference on Lynching to eradicate the behavior from American society.

When a white mob murdered more than 30 African-Americans in East St. Louis, Ill., Walker visited the White House with African-American leaders petitioning for a federal anti-lynching legislation.

Death

Walker died on May 25, 1919 at her home. At the time of her death, Walker’s business was valued at more than one million dollars.