While the end of Reconstruction ushered in a volatile period in which the former Confederate states instituted laws that severely restricted the upward mobility of African Americans, life for blacks remained largely as harsh as during the slavery. Black residents along the Mississippi River began fleeing the south in the late 19th century, settling north for better opportunities. Among those who made the trip was an entrepreneur who would become known as Madame CJ Walker. Walker not only managed to become a self-made millionaire, but she also became a strong advocate for black women.
Walker, born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, where her parents had been enslaved, was orphaned at age 7 and worked in cotton fields near Vicksburg, Mississippi, living with her older sister . To escape her abusive brother-in-law, Walker married at 14 and gave birth to her only daughter, A’Lelia, in 1885, only to be widowed two years later. But returning to live with his sister and brother-in-law was not an option, so Walker and A’Lelia moved to St. Louis where Walker’s older brothers had emigrated, establishing themselves as barbers.
Walker finds mentors and support at church
Walker, who had little formal education and worked as a laundress, found a community of black women at St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Louis.
“At St. Paul AME Church, there were women who were educated teachers and others who were leaders in the community who sought out women, like Sarah Breedlove, to encourage them in any way they could,” explains A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great godmother. -great-granddaughter and author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madame CJ Walker.
Walker, who joined the choir, was embraced and nurtured by the women of the church who were active in the missionary society and members of the National Association of Colored Women.
“She got to see an example of what life would be like other than as a washer,” Bundles says. “And those women started giving her a vision of herself, and that’s part of what propelled her.”
During the 1890s, Walker developed a scalp condition that led to severe hair loss, a common occurrence, mostly due to a lack of indoor plumbing, which made hair washing infrequent, Bundles says. With her brothers’ knowledge of hair care, Walker began experimenting with homemade ointments and store-bought products from Annie Turnbo Malone, a black entrepreneur with a successful hair care line. Walker, then remarried to a man who abused her, fled St. Louis for Denver in 1905 to live with a sister-in-law and work as a sales agent for Poro, Malone’s company.
Walker develops its own hair product
In Denver, Walker became active in another AME church, selling Poro products to black women, while also working as a cook for the owner of a large drugstore. With her pharmaceutical suggestions, coupled with the knowledge she gained from her brothers and working as a Poro agent, Walker developed her own product.
She had also married her third husband Charles Joseph Walker, a press man, and founded her business, the Madam CJ Walker Company. Leaving Poro, she immersed herself in her work.
With a vision of having a hair empire, Walker traveled the South and Southeast with her product, “Madame CJ Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower,” a scalp conditioning and healing formula, selling door-to-door to Black women and giving demonstrations in the churches.
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As business boomed, Walker created opportunities for other black women, hiring them as sales agents and strategizing for them to increase their profits. Thanks to her husband’s marketing skills, Walker also advertised in several black newspapers, announcing when she would be in town selling, and published testimonials about her product.
According to Bundles, some of the ads said, “You made a black woman more money in a day selling your products than she could make in a month working in someone’s kitchen” or ” Before I started using Madame Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, my hair was an eighth of an inch long and now it’s down my back.
As Walker’s fortune grew, she became a philanthropist, supporting schools, the arts, and civil rights organizations, as well as providing wealth-building opportunities for its agents.
“She entered the business world, not for herself alone, but for the good of black people, and more specifically, the good of black women,” says Erica Ball, a professor at Occidental College and author of Madame CJ Walker and the creation of an American icon. “She really offers working-class and middle-class African American women a form of self-employment. They go from house to house or do their hair in a group and it’s an opportunity to become community-oriented entrepreneurs.
But Walker’s dream of owning an empire was bigger than her husband’s, and they divorced. Walker settled in 1910 in Indianapolis, a manufacturing-friendly city and major transportation hub, where it established its headquarters and built a factory, in addition to expanding its salons and training schools to other cities.
“She provides jobs for thousands of women,” Bundles says. Walker told his agents, “I want you to understand that as Walker agents, your first duty is to humanity. I want others to look at us and realize that we don’t just care about ourselves, but about others.
“When we think of philanthropy, we think of it as someone with extraordinary wealth who gives back or distributes gifts to those below them in the economic hierarchy,” Ball says. “But there is this old black tradition of community building and Madam Walker is part of this tradition. She learned philanthropy from her peers. She benefited from these kinds of black community organizations when she was washing clothes for white women.
In 1916 Walker moved to New York, where she already owned a two-story townhouse in Harlem, and built Villa Lewaro, a mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, designed by black architect Vertner Tandy. She dedicated herself to anti-lynching activism, donating $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund and joining Harlem leaders in asking Washington politicians for anti-lynching legislation after the East St. Louis riot of 1917, where more than three dozen African Americans were killed. by a white crowd.
Walker died of complications from high blood pressure in 1919. At the time of her death, she was worth more than $1 million, Bundles says.
Walker’s hair products continued to be sold in pharmacies for decades after his death, followed by a period of inactivity for the company before the line was relaunched as MADAM by Madame CJ Walker in 2022 .