A number of successful black entrepreneurs have lived to leave legacies that shall forever be etched in history. Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam C.J Walker, was a renowned lover of the arts, social activist and entrepreneur whose legacy in the hair care industry still lives on.
Born in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana, Sarah Breedlove was the daughter of Minerva and Owen Anderson Breedlove. Her parents were both former slaves and following their passing, she moved to live with her sister at the age of 7. Sarah got married at the tender age of 14 to Moses McWilliams. Her explanation for getting married so young was that she wanted to have a home of her own and it was also due to early hardships that she faced. It is documented that part of the reason she got married so young was to escape the abuse from her brother-in-law.
Sarah had a daughter with Moses McWilliams in 1885 and named her Leila. Leila later on adopted the name A’Leila and she was a key figure during the Harlem Renaissance. In 1887 at the age of 20, Sarah lost her husband and she became a single parent to their 2-year old daughter Leila.
Following the death of her husband, Sarah and her daughter relocated to St. Louis. Three of her brothers lived there and they were barbers. Sarah enrolled in night school and took up work as a laundress.
Journey to Become An Entrepreneur
It was during the time that she was attending night school and working as a laundress that Sarah began suffering from hair loss. She also noticed that a number of other black women were suffering from the same problem. The hair loss problem was brought about by poor diet and hygiene as well as scalp illnesses such as dandruff. This caused the affected women to have brittle hair and eventually suffer from hair loss. During the time a number of African Americans did not wash their hair frequently because they lacked electricity, central heating and indoor plumbing systems.
Sarah’s knowledge about hair was derived from her brothers who were barbers. However, around the 1904 World’s Fair period Sarah got work as a commission agent and sold Annie Turnbo Malone’s hair care products. Annie Turnbo Malone was a hair care entrepreneur. It is during this time that Sarah started experimenting with different ingredients hoping to come up with a solution to the hair loss problem. She finally formulated a mixture comprising of sulfur, which worked coupled with frequent washing of the scalp and hair.
She began selling her ‘hair loss cure’ door-to-door, but in 1905 Sarah moved to Denver. She got married to Charles J. Walker and following the success of the business she adopted the name ‘Madam C.J. Walker.’ Her business continued to thrive and her husband Charles, a newspaper ads salesman, played a crucial role in helping with the advertising and marketing of the business. Sarah focused on training women in the art of selling and becoming ‘beauty culturists.’ Madam C.J. Walker had thousands of agents’ country wide selling her range of hair care products. Her products were formulated to beautify and grow hair and they included Tetter Salve, Temple Grower, Glossine and Wonderful Hair Grower. Her daughter A’Leila was also part of the business as the head of the business’s mail order operations in Denver.
Madam C.J. Walker’s business was not only successful in the U.S but also in Costa Rica, Cuba, Panama, Jamaica and Haiti.
Giving Back to The Community
Madam C.J. Walker is well remembered not only for her innovative formulation, but also for giving back to the community. She contributed to organizations based in Indianapolis such as Flanner House, the Senate Avenue Young Men’s Christian Association and Bethel African Methodist Episcol Church. She also gave back to the wider African-American community outside of Indianapolis including contributing to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Tuskegee Institute. She also supported a number of African American artists, musicians and actors. Her daughter A’Leila also shared in her enjoyment of diverse genres of music including the blues, opera, ragtime and classical music.
During her travels to the eastern and souther states, Madam C.J. Walker and her husband opened Leila College in Pittsburg in 1908. The college was aimed at training ‘hair culturists.’ In 1910, they moved to Indianapolis and in 1910 she set up a beauty school, hair salon and factory. Later on Madam C.J. Walker set up a laboratory towards research that would help with formulating of her line of hair care products.
Her support of the African American community was geared towards building both personal as well as racial pride and education. That is why in 1915 she filed a lawsuit against discrimination African Americans faced at an Indianapolis theatre.
Walker also continued in her efforts to train her fellow black women to become independent. She would teach them about grooming and budgeting with the aim of equipping them to develop their own businesses. Madam C.J. Walker was sponsored severally to give lectures on social, economic and political issues.
In 1917 Madam C.J. Walker founded the Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention, bringing together African American women from all over the nation to discuss commerce and business.
The height of her career was the years between 1911 up to her untimely death in 1919. Madam C.J. Walker was a hard worker, which eventually impacted on her health. Her work involved a lot of travel, gracing and speaking at a number of functions and day-to-day running of her business. She began suffering from health complications including hypertension and kidney failure. In April 1919, while in St. Louis, she fell ill and did not recover. She passed on in May 1919 at the age of 51 at her Villa Lewaro estate in New York.
At the time of her passing, she was considered to be America’s wealthiest woman of color. Madam C.J. Walker had refuted the claims prior to her death in a 1917 interview with the New York Times magazine she was quoted to have said “she was not yet a millionaire, but hoped to be some time. Not that she wanted the money for herself, but for the good she could do with it.”
A’Leila became Madama C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company’s president following the death of her mother.
The Legacy of Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker’s legacy still lives on 96 years after her death. The manufacturing company she formed still stands as well as the Madam C.J. Walker brand that she built. The company, under the Madame C.J. Walker Enterprises Inc., still manufactures Walker’s original line of hair care products. The company has expanded to manufacture natural hair care products including vegetable conditioners and shampoos.
In 1927 the Madame Walker Theater Center was constructed with the aim of preserving Walker’s legacy. Her family has remained involved in the running of Madame Walker Theatre Center to preserve her legacy. The theatre shares Walker’s story through lectures, collections of her family photos, books, memorabilia from her personal life including furniture, clothing and personal artifacts and business records.
Madam C.J. Walker’s New York estate, Villa Lewaro, is also now a National Historic Landmark. She also features on the U.S Postal Service commemorative Stamp for their Black Heritage Series.
An official biography website was set up for Walker www.madamcjwalker.com and it is maintained by her biographer and great-granddaughter, A’Leila Bundles.
Inspiration to Many
Madam C.J. Walker is undoubtedly an inspiration not only to African American women, but also to every single person. She is the true embodiment of someone from humble and tough beginnings who turned her fortunes around to become a historical figure.
Marjorie Joyner, a Madam C.J Walker employee, is among the success stories stemming from inspiration derived from Walker’s success. Marjorie invented a permanent and improved wave machine, which ‘permed’ or curled women’s hair for longer periods. The device was patented in 1928 and it went on to become popular with both black and white women.
Her legacy still lives on and inspires many aspiring entrepreneurs to chase after their dreams and, for African Americans in particular, to have pride in who they are. It is for this reason hat her story always comes up during Black History month as one of the African American women who made strides to become a successful entrepreneur against all odds. Her story isn’t far off from many who have a need and could use their need to start successful businesses. Madam C.J. Walker’s business in essence grew from the need to come up with a solution to the hair loss and scalp disease problem that plagued a number of black women during her time. To quote her famous words, “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.”