This being African American History Month, I call your attention to...
Madam C.J. Walker
Sarah Breedlove was born December 23, 1867, on the Madison Parish cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana.
Her parents, Owen and Minerva, were recently freed slaves and Sarah was the first in her family to be free-born. She was the fifth child; she had three older brothers and one older sister.
Minerva Breedlove died in 1874 and when Owen passed away the following year, Sarah became an orphan at the age of 7. She was sent to live with her sister, Louvinia, and her brother-in-law. The three moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1877, where 10 year old Sarah picked cotton and was likely employed doing household work.
At the age of 14, she married Moses McWilliams and three years later her daughter, Lelia McWilliams, was born. When Sarah was 20, her husband died. Lelia was just 2 years old and the two moved to St. Louis, where Sarah’s three brothers lived and worked as barbers at a local barbershop. She managed to get a job as a washer woman where she earned a little more than a dollar a day. She sent her daughter to public school and when she could she attended night school.
She was destined for a life of family – with her brothers and her daughter – but meager creature comforts.
Sarah McWilliams wanted more.
She had some problems with her hair primarily because of harsh products like lye that were included in soaps used to cleanse the hair. Because most Americans lacked indoor plumbing, central heating and electricity, they bathed and washed their hair infrequently.
To treat her own hair initially, she learned about hair care from her barber brothers.
Mother, wash woman, student and budding entrepreneur, Sarah met and eventually married Charles J. Walker in St Louis. He worked in newspaper advertising and encouraged his new wife to sell the hair care products she developed for herself.
In 1905 Sarah came to the attention of Annie Turnbo Malone—a successful, black, hair care product entrepreneur—and she, Charles and Lelia moved to Denver, Colorado where she took the name of “Madam C.J. Walker.”
She learned from Malone, but soon left to market her own products, in her own way. She started by training women in Denver to become “beauty culturists” and to learn the art of selling. In 1906, Madam C.J. Walker put her daughter Lelia in charge of the mail order operation while she and her husband traveled throughout the southern and eastern United States giving lectures and organizing black women in teams of “beauty culturists” to go door to door as sales agents for her beauty products, giving in home demonstrations and taking orders.
By 1910, when Walker transferred her business operations to Indianapolis, the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company had become wildly successful, with profits that were the modern-day equivalent of several million dollars and sales areas that reached outside of the United States to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica.
In Indianapolis, the company not only manufactured cosmetics, but set up a school to formally educate sales beauticians. These “Walker Agents” became well known throughout the black communities of the United States. In turn, they promoted Walker’s philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness” as a means of advancing the status of African-Americans.
She began to teach and train other black women in women’s independence, budgeting, and grooming in order to help them build their own businesses. She gave lectures on political, economic and social issues at conventions sponsored by powerful black institutions.
In 1917 she started the Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention, which ended up being the first national meeting of American women brought together to discuss business and commerce. She became involved in political matters, joining the executive committee of the Silent Protest Parade.
In 1917, she commissioned Vertner Tandy, the first licensed black architect in New York State to design a house for her in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. The house cost an enormous $250,000 to build and when she finally moved in in May 1918 she hosted an opening event to honor Emmett Scott, then the Assistant Secretary for Negro Affairs of the United States War Department.
Madam C. J. Walker died on Sunday, May 25, 1919 in her very classy home. She was 51. In today’s dollars her full estate was worth $65,000,000.
At her death there at the end of WW I, she was not only the wealthiest African-American woman in America, she was the richest self-made woman in the world.
Against all odds, with no “entitlements,” she empowered and enriched the lives of millions.