"There is no royal, flower-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."
"I got my start by giving myself a start."
"This is the greatest country under the sun. But, we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty, to cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice."
- Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker was an inventor, businesswoman, philanthropist, and a social activist who made her fortune by developing and marketing a hugely successful line of beauty and hair products for black women. The Guinness Book of Records cites Walker as the first female, black or white, who became a millionaire by her own achievements.
Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 on a Delta, Louisiana plantation (birthplace shown here), this daughter of former slaves transformed herself from an uneducated farm laborer and laundress into of the twentieth century's most successful, self-made women entrepreneur.
Orphaned at age seven, she often said, "I got my start by giving myself a start." She and her older sister, Louvenia, survived by working in the cotton fields of Delta and nearby Vicksburg, Mississippi. At 14, she married Moses McWilliams to escape abuse from her cruel brother-in-law, Jesse Powell.
Her only daughter, Lelia (later known as A'Lelia Walker) was born on June 6, 1885. When her husband died two years later, she moved to St. Louis to join her four brothers who had established themselves as barbers. Working for as little as $1.50 a day, she managed to save enough money to educate her daughter. Friendships with other black women who were members of St. Paul A.M.E. Church and the National Association of Colored Women exposed her to a new way of viewing the world.
Like many women of that era, Sarah washed her hair only once a month. As a result, she suffered from severe dandruff and a scalp disease that caused her to lose most of her hair. In 1905, she moved to Denver where she worked as a sales agent for Annie Malone, a black woman entrepreneur who manufactured hair care products. Sarah consulted with a Denver pharmacist who analyzed Malone's formula and helped Sarah formulate her own products.
While in Denver, Sarah 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 door to door. The elements of the "Walker System" were a shampoo, a pomade "hair-grower," vigorous brushing, and the application of heated hair combs. The method transformed stubborn, lusterless hair into shining smoothness. Madam Walker, by the way, did not invent the straightening comb, 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 Southeast, selling her products door to door, demonstrating her scalp treatments in churches and lodges, and devising sales and marketing strategies.
In 1908, Madam Walker created a college for her future employees. They were trained in the art of hair styling. Leila College, run by Madam Walker's daughter,A'Lelia, taught their students what became known as the Walker Method. After their schooling, most of the graduates were employed by Walker herself. She and her company employed over 3,000 people at one point.
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. 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."
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. Although she continued to oversee the business and to run the New York office, once in Harlem, Madam Walker 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.
Walker made most of her fortune between 1911 and 1917, making Madam C.J. Walker the first African American woman to become a millionaire. The fame received by this hard work gave her the inspiration to promote her product in lectures, which in turn helped other black women start their own businesses. Like many famous African Americans of the time, Madam Walker was an inspirational speaker, preaching hard work and determination through struggles.
Madam Walker had a mansion called "Villa Lewaro" built in the wealthy New York suburb of Irvington on Hudson, New York, near the estates of John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould. The Italianate villa was designed by architect Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state of New York. She also owned townhouses in Indianapolis and New York.
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 favoring 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. As she put it,
"This is the greatest country under the sun.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."
Warned by physicians that her hypertension required a reduction of her activities, Madame Walker nevertheless continued her busy schedule. She died at age 52 in 1919 at her estate. Included in Madame C.J. Walker's will was a provision that women would always head the company she founded.
No single accomplishment or personal trait captures the essence of Madam C. J. Walker's legacy. Rather, her life is best summed up as being a . . .
Pioneering entrepreneur. Madam C.J. Walker was clearly a pioneer of the modern cosmetics industry. 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. Along the way, she provided educational opportunities and lucrative incomes for thousands of African American women who otherwise would have been consigned to jobs as farm laborers, washerwomen and maids.
Pioneering philanthropist. Madam Walker was also a pioneering philanthropist, initiating the philosophy of charitable giving in the black community with her unprecedented contributions to the YMCA, the NAACP, the Tuskegee Institute, and Bethune-Cookman College.
Pioneering social activist. And, as a pioneering political activist, Madam C.J. Walker organized her sales agents to use their economic clout to protest lynching and racial injustice.
Pioneering creator of a self-confident beauty culture for black women - her greatest legacy. She made it her goal to create a safe and comfortable place in which black women could be "pampered," believing that this kind of attention would boost their self-confidence and alleviate the daily stress that black women suffered from. In addition to feeling physical beauty, she wanted women to, "combine these qualities with a beautiful mind and soul." As much as any woman of the twentieth century, Madam C.J. Walker paved the way for the profound social changes that altered women's place in American society.