In recognition of Black History Month and Women’s history month, AAUW is profiling women who fought to break through barriers, women we should never forget. This week we feature Madam C.J. Walker (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919) an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and social activist. Madam Walker is known as one of the first self-made female millionaires in America, she broke through economic barriers in the early 1900’s. Today’s guest blogger is A’Lelia Bundles, great-great-granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker and author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker.
“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. . . . I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
– Madam C. J. Walker, 1912
Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, on a Delta, Louisiana plantation, this daughter of former slaves transformed herself from an uneducated farm laborer and laundress into one of the 20th century’s most successful, self-made women entrepreneurs.
Orphaned at age seven, Madam C. J. Walker often said, “I got my start by giving myself a start.” Widowed at 20 with a two-year-old daughter, she moved to St. Louis, where she worked as a washerwoman and struggled to send her daughter to school. 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 herself and the world.
During the 1890s, she began to experiment with many homemade remedies and formulas when a scalp ailment caused her to lose most of her hair. After moving to Denver in 1905 and marrying newspaperman Charles Joseph (C. J.) Walker, she introduced a line of products including a vegetable shampoo and her Wonderful Hair Grower.
By early 1910, Madam Walker had settled in Indianapolis, where she built a factory, salon, and beauty 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. The townhouse included an elegant beauty salon (known as Walker Salon) on the first floor and private living quarters on the upper three floors.
Walker moved to New York in 1916, leaving trusted employees to run the day-to-day operations of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis. She continued to oversee the business, but she also turned her attention to Harlem’s social and political life, taking special interest in the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement to which she contributed $5,000.
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 was 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 also to encourage their political activism on behalf of African Americans and women. “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.”
By the time she died in 1919 at her estate, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, Walker had helped create the role of the 20th-century, self-made American businesswoman, established herself as a pioneer of the modern black hair-care and cosmetics industry, and set standards in the African American community for corporate and community giving.
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. “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she once commented. “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.”
Today Madam Walker’s legacy survives most tangibly through two National Historic Landmarks: Villa Lewaro and the Madam Walker Theatre Center, a performance and arts education venue housed in the former Walker Company headquarters in Indianapolis. Walker continues to inspire new generations of entrepreneurs and students in numerous ways, from dozens of awards named for her to a Harvard Business School case study.
As her great-great-granddaughter, it is my great joy to share her story with thousands of people each year through speeches, though my book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, and through our website at www.madamcjwalker.com.