“Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face. I have been trying to tell you what I am doing. I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted from there to the washtub. Then I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I know how to grow hair as well as I know how to grow cotton. I have built my own factory on my own ground.” Madam C J Walker at Booker T Washington’s National Negro Business League Conference (1912)
At that time, Black men discounted Black women’s entrepreneurial ventures even when they were successful. Madam CJ Walker had been trying to get the attention of Booker T Washington at his convention for three days and he ignored her efforts. She was forced to stand during the event and say what she had to say. As quoted above, immediately after she explained how she took her $1.50 in savings and turned it into a $117,000 business in eight short years – the next year she was a featured speaker at the National Negro Business League Conference. It is worthy to note that Madam Walker was able to send her daughter to college from the money she made as a laundress.
Name: Madam C J Walker (Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker)
Birth Date: December 1867 – May 1919
Job Functions: Entrepreneur, Hair-care Industry Pioneer, Philanthropist and Political Activist
Fields: Hair care
Known For: First female self-made millionaire in the United States
Born Sarah Breedlove to freed slaves on a cotton plantation, Madam CJ Walker was orphaned at age seven. She and her older sister survived by working in the cotton fields of Delta and Vicksburg, Mississippi. At age 14 Madam Walker married Moses McWilliams, and in 1887, at age 20 she was widowed with a 2-year old daughter. It is believed that her husband was lynched during a race riot. With an infant, little formal education and unskilled, Madam Walker had to find a way to take care of herself and her child.
That same year, she left the Mississippi for St. Louis where her four brothers were and established herself as a laundress. She did this for the next 18 years. Every day while she laundered her customers’ clothes, hands immersed in steaming water in the wash tub, her hands, face, and hair experienced the full impact of the steaming vapors of the chemicals and fumes from the strong detergents.
At the time, a common health problem among African American women was baldness, which was caused by poor diet, stressful working condition, illness, damaging hair care products and scalp disease. With all the difficulties in her life, and the rigors of her work, Madam Walker started to lose her hair – she had split ends and patches of bald spots. She used various beauty products that were touted to promote hair growth. She experimented with various chemicals to find the correct formulation that would aid in the care and grooming of the hair and skin of African American women.
To promote her laundry business, Madam Walker always wore freshly laundered, starched, and pressed clothes to highlight her skills. Immaculately dressed, in 1904, she attended an event hosted by the National Association of Colored Women at the St. Louis World’s Fair, where Booker T. Washington’s wife, Margaret Murray Washington was speaking.
Margaret Murray Washington was also elegantly dressed in silk with her hair pulled back from her face. This inspired Madam Walker to work harder to improve her looks because she was very conscious of the bald spots and broken hair. To supplement her income, Madam Walker registered as a sales agent for Annie M. Turnbo Malone’s Poro Company which sold hair mixes door-to-door. Walker was disappointed with the products and experimented with them in an effort to improve them.
She came up with a formula which she says she received in a dream. Madam Walker had some success selling her products in St. Louis, but she decided to move to Denver. Shortly after moving there, she met Charles J. Walker, who was a skilled publicist and newspaperman. He gave her tips on how to market and advertise her products. It is suggested that he told her to use the name Madam CJ Walker. The Walker business took off in Denver and the two married shortly after (1906).
Madam Walker created the Walker system which comprised of a broad offering of cosmetics, hair care products that removed the curls from African American women; licensed Walker Agents; and Walker Schools offered meaningful employment and personal growth to thousands of Black women.
Madam C J Walker in the National Archives
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Madam C. J. Walker’s Journey to Success
- She targeted an untapped base of American consumers and workers – African American women.
- Mobilized a network of African American women as sales agents for her line of hair care products.
- She developed the system, which comprised of Madam C J Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.
- Her husband Charles Walker handled promotions and other administrative functions at the home office while Madam Walker went door-to-door marketing her hair care products. In their ads, they used before and after shots which are now common today.
- From 1906 to 1916, Madam Walker traveled throughout the United States, West Indies and Central America to promote her business.
- As sales increased, Walker began training “agent-operators.”
- Gave lectures and demonstrations at black clubs, homes, and churches in the Southern and Eastern states.
- Established a training centre for her salespeople, along with research and production laboratories and another beauty school.
- Organized agents into a series of “Walker Clubs” that gave cash prizes to the clubs doing the largest amount of philanthropic work.
- Had annual national convention to bring together the agents to learn new techniques, share business experiences and to talk about personal success stories.
- Became a member of associations: National Association of Colored Women.
- Gave financial support to organizations in the community like the YMCA, NACCP, Bethune-Cookman College in Florida.
- In 1910, she built manufacturing facilities in Indianapolis, a city with multiple train lines to facilitate a streamlined mail order business.
Madam Walker’s business philosophy stressed economic independence for the 20,000 former maids, farm labourers, housewives, and schoolteachers she employed as agents, factory and office workers.
- In 1911, she contributed $1,000 to the building fund of the Indianapolis YMCA.
- Made donations to homes for the aged and the needy.
- Donated money to Palmer Memorial Institute.
- Maintained scholarships for young women at Tuskegee
- She became a benefactor of Bethune-Cookman College in Florida leaving it $5,000 in her will.
- In 1919, in her will, she left $5,000 to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
- During World War I, Madam Walker was among the people who supported the government’s black recruitment efforts and war bond drives.
- After the bloody 1917 East St. Louis riot, she joined the Negro Silent Protest Parade planning committee to petition President Woodrow to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime.
- She joined a group of blacks who advocated an alternative peace conference at Versailles after the war to monitor proceedings affecting the world’s people of color.
- Madam Walker advocated for black women’s economic independence and she did her part by hiring and training them to work for her company. This is significant because many of these women had worked as maids and sharecroppers.
Madam C J Walker worked incredibly hard, and the demands she placed on herself ultimately undermined her health. On May 25, 1919, at age fifty-one, Madam C J Walker died. At the time, she was considered the wealthiest black woman in America, and is said to have been the first African American woman millionaire.
Why Madam C J Walker’s Contribution Matters
Madam C J Walker’s contribution matters because she had a significant impact on the lives of many. She advocated for black women’s economic empowerment, creating business opportunities for them at a time when most black women worked as servants and sharecroppers. Madam C J Walker was a trailblazer, and used her business acumen to propel her to affluence.
Timeline: The Life of Madam C. J. Walker (http://www.madamcjwalker.com/)
Madam C.J. Walker: “I got my start by giving myself a start.”
Happy 144th Birthday, Madam C. J. Walker!
Black History: Madam C.J. Walker, America’s First Female Millionaire. What is Black Beauty?
Madam C. J. Walker
Madam C. J. Walker – A Pioneering Black American Woman
Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History, p 2259 -2260
Inc. Magazine, The Great Leaders Series: Madam CJ Walker, Founder of Madame CJ Walker Enterprises
About.com Inventors: Madame C. J. Walker, http://inventors.about.com/od/wstartinventors/a/MadameWalker.htm
Women in History, Volume Sixteen, p134-p138