Madam C. J. Walker

Madam Walker in a photograph ca. 1914 by Addison Scurlock

Madam C. J. Walker (December 23, 1867 - May 25, 1919), was an African-American philanthropist and tycoon. Born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, the daughter of former slaves, she was raised on farms in Louisiana and Mississippi, picking cotton. She was orphaned at age seven, married at age 14, became a mother at 17 and was widowed at 20. By the age of 50, the company she founded was the largest business in the United States owned by an African-American. Through tenacity and faith she sculpted a life not only of personal success, but as one of a role-model at a crucial time in America's history.

Despite such odds, Sarah Breedlove, with vision and determination, developed a remarkable work-ethic. She was instrumental as a role model for African-Americans, especially women, of her day. At a time when women were believed to be neither physically nor emotionally suited for business, and African Americans were believed to be incapable of developing their own communities, Madam C. J. Walker refuted the stereotypes and broke the barriers which had held back so many. She is thus respected as a great pioneer in the fight for equality among genders and races in America.

Madam C. J. Walker, never forgetting the poor and less fortunate, became a charitable philanthropist giving to a multitude of institutions.

Truly an African American icon, Madam C. J. Walker overcame astonishing odds to become a leader of her people. Even as her life drew to an end, she yearned for more years in order to "Do more than ever for my race. I've caught the vision. I can see what they need."

One of her final statements gives a hint to the source of her strength: "It was through His divine providence that I am what I am, for all good and perfect gifts come from above" (Scribner 2001, 269).


Contents

Family Background

Sarah Breedlove, known in her later life as Madam C. J. Walker, was born to former slaves Owen and Minerva Breedlove in Delta Louisiana. Sarah's parents had six children; sons Alexander, James, Solomon and Owen Jr., and daughters Sarah and Louvenia. A cholera epidemic swept the area in the early 1870s and Owen and Minerva Breedlove were thought to have been victims, succumbing to the disease in 1874.

When Sarah was ten years-old she and her older sister moved across the river to Vicksburg Mississippi and found work as maids. At the age of 14, Sarah married Moses McWilliams, reportedly to escape the abuse of her sister's husband. A daughter, Lelia, was born to this union on June 6, 1885. In adulthood she became well-known by the name A'Lelia Walker, and was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

When Lelia was only two years-old, her father died, leaving Sarah a widow at the age of 20. Her second marriage to John Davis on August 11, 1894 failed and ended sometime in 1903. A third marriage in January, 1906, to Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper sales agent ended in 1910.

New Beginnings

After the death of her first husband, Sarah McWilliams traveled to St. Louis to join her four brothers who had established themselves as barbers. Working as a laundrywoman, she managed to save enough money to educate her daughter. Friendships with other black women who were members of the St. Paul AME Church and the National Association of Colored Women exposed her to a new way of viewing the world.

Sarah Breedlove's life in Mississippi, difficult as it may have been, could not have prepared her for life in St. Louis. Though she had the support of her brothers and their families, life in a big northern city did not offer the same support and familiarity as the life her family had known for generations in the South.

St. Paul AME Church was the second-oldest black protestant church in St. Louis and the oldest African Methodist Episcopal congregation west of the Mississippi. The AME churches had a long tradition of political militancy and self-reliance, its ministers had advocated abolition, conducted clandestine schools during slavery and harbored emigrants new to the city (Scribner 2001, 49)

Sarah Breedlove, faced with family tragedies, an abusive marriage and a dangerous neighborhood sought solace in the comfort and hope that St. Paul's offered. Sarah found strength through the church as well as through the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home, where her daughter Lelia lived part of every week.

The church community, besides offering spiritual solace and physical assistance, also offered new ideas and dreams to the black race who had suffered generations of demoralizing slavery.

Never forgetting her situation as a young widowed mother in an unfamiliar city and the assistance she received to help her get on her feet, Sarah Breedlove Walker in turn became an activist and philanthropist in her later years.

Madam Walker maintained a strong connection to the church throughout her life. In her early days of traveling as a saleswoman, her first stop in any town was the local church, where she visited the pastor and was introduced to the congregation. After she was well-established and well-known she spoke in churches on "The Negro Woman in Business" in order to 'inspire women to rise above laundry and the kitchen' and to aspire to much more wealth, happiness and fulfillment in their lives.

Business

Sarah began suffering from a scalp ailment in the 1890s, resulting in extensive hair loss. Ashamed of her appearance, she experimented with a variety of home-made remedies and products, including those made by another black woman entrepreneur, Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone. In 1905, Sarah became a sales agent for Pope-Turnbo Products and moved to Denver, where she married Charles Joseph Walker, whom she had met in St. Louis.

Eventually, Sarah developed her own product, which she reported came to her in a dream as an answer to her prayers. Claiming a 'secret ingredient' from Africa, her formula contained coconut oil, petrolatum, beeswax, copper sulfate, violet extract, and carbolic acid. She named her product Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower.

Black women of Sarah's day endured daily emotional and psychological pressure to assimilate by minimizing the physical reminders of slavery. To be considered beautiful in those times one had to have long flowing locks, not the "short, nappy, woolly" heads that were common among the poor, often former slave, women of that day. Ms. Breedlove's products healed an unhealthy scalp and enabled hair to grow long and luxurious.

Changing her name to Madam C. J. Walker, she founded her own business and began selling her product, which had proven itself as a scalp conditioner and healing agent. To promote her products, she embarked on a demanding sales drive throughout the southeastern states. She sold her product door-to-door, often giving demonstrations. During this time she learned and perfected sales and marketing techniques. In 1908, she temporarily moved to Pittsburgh and opened the 'Lelia College for Walker Hair Culturists' to train her growing team.

The company's central operations moved to Indianapolis in 1910, which was at the time the country's largest manufacturing base. From here, they had access to eight major railway systems, and a group of key individuals were brought in to run the company. During this period she and her husband divorced.

Madam Walker's company eventually grew into a thriving national corporation which at one point employed over 3,000 people. The Walker System included a broad range of cosmetics, licensed Walker Agents, and Walker Schools which gave meaningful employment to thousands of African-American women.

She had developed innovative methods of mass production, distribution, marketing, and advertising unknown in her day. Her aggressive marketing strategies and unstoppable drive led her company to success and her to become the first African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire.

Contemporaries

The late 1800s and early 1900s was a time during which Americans of African descent were recovering from the effects of slavery. The black leaders of that day were necessarily people of strength and conviction. Madam Walker thus had powerful contemporaries.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington was the founder of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama and helped to establish the National Negro Business League. Washington's major thesis was that blacks could secure their constitutional rights through their own economic and moral advancement rather than through legal and political changes. He kept a conciliatory stand, which angered some blacks who feared it would encourage the foes of equal rights, though whites tended to agree with his views. He felt this stance was necessary in order to attain support for the programs he envisioned and brought into being. [1]

Walker tried for several years to arrange a meeting with Washington in order to gain his endorsement of her business. Washington did not support the type of business Madam Walker operated, stating that it "fostered imitation of white beauty standards." When Walker attended the National Negro Business League national convention she was not invited to speak. When she did speak out, Washington ignored her presence. After several years, Walker was eventually invited as a speaker and in 1914 Washington named her the Foremost Business Woman of Our Race.

In 1914, Walker spent some time at the Tuskegee Institute, addressing the students each morning after daily religious exercises. However, her efforts to convince Washington to adopt her work as part of the curriculum of his school were unsuccessful.

W.E.B. DuBois

One of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, William Edward Burghardt DuBois was one of the first male civil rights leaders to recognize the problems of gender discrimination. He was among the first men to understand the unique problems of black women, and to value their contributions. He supported the women's suffrage movement and strove to integrate this mostly white struggle. [2]

DuBois, to his admirers, was by spirited devotion and scholarly dedication, an attacker of injustice and a defender of freedom. An outspoken Pan-Africanist, he gained the support of Madam Walker because of her great interest in the African Continent.

Booker T. Washington argued that Black people should temporarily forego "political power, insistence on civil rights, and higher education of Negro youth. They should concentrate all their energies on industrial education." In contrast, DuBois believed in the higher education of a "Talented Tenth" who through their knowledge of modern culture could guide the American Negro into a higher civilization.

Though Washington and DuBois were one-time friends who parted ways, Madam Walker continued a friendship with both men. She was unfortunately unable to assist them in reconciling their differences.

Activism

Madam Walker viewed her personal wealth as a vehicle to improve the lot of others. She used it to expand economic opportunities for others, especially African-Americans. Her pride was in the ability to offer profitable employment and an alternative to domestic labor that many blacks seemed locked into. One of her employees, Marjorie Joyner, began under her influence and went on to lead the next generation of African-American beauty entrepreneurs.

Well-known and an inspiration to many, she understood the potential of her voice and encouragement. She became a public speaker and lectured to promote her business, in turn empowering other women in business. She did not limit her public speaking to business however, but touched on issues important to the black community. She also encouraged black Americans to support the cause of World War I and worked to have black veterans granted full respect.

In 1917, East St. Louis (Illinois) experienced a bloody race riot in which more than three dozen black men were killed by a white mob. This prompted Madam Walker to devote herself to having lynching made a federal crime, joining a group of Harlem leaders who visited the White House to present a petition favoring federal anti-lynching legislation.

As her business developed, she organized her agents into local and state clubs. The 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. This gathering was used not only to reward her agents for their business success, but to encourage their political activism as well. She told them:

"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." [3]

A recognized philanthropist, Madam Walker strongly supported the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's anti-lynching campaign, contributing large sums of money to them. She was the keynote speaker at many NAACP fund raisers for the anti-lynching effort throughout the Midwest and Eastern United States.

Additional organizations that benefited from Ms. Walker's philanthropy included the Tuskegee Institute, Charlotte Hawkin’s Palmer Memorial Institute, Bethone’s Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls and Lucy Laney’s Haynes Institute in Augusta, Georgia. She also contributed to homes for the aged in St. Louis and Indianapolis and to the Young Women’s Christian Association. [4] The National Association of Colored Women (NACW) honored Madam Walker during the summer of 1918 for making the largest contribution to saving the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Her will was revised late in life in order to include support to black schools, organizations, individuals, orphanages, retirement homes, as well as YWCAs and YMCAs. Walker's daughter, A'Lelia Walker, carried on this tradition, opening her home and her mother's to writers and artists of the emerging Harlem Renaissance and promoting important members of that movement.

Legacy

Villa Lewaro was built in August of 1918 in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. The grand estate served not only as Madam Walker's home but as a conference center for summits of racial leaders to discuss current issues. Her neighbors included industrialists Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller.

Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro at 51 years-of-age on Sunday, May 25, 1919 from kidney failure resulting from hypertension. Upon her death she was considered to be the wealthiest African-American woman in America and known to be the first African-American woman millionaire.

In her will, Walker bequeathed two-thirds of her estate to charitable and educational institutions, many of which she had supported during her lifetime. The remaining third was left to her daughter, A'Lelia, who succeeded her as company president. A provision in the will directed that the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company always have a woman president.

The Walker Building, planned by Madam Walker, was completed nine years after her death (1927) in Indianapolis to serve as company headquarters. The trustees of the Walker estate sold the original Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co. in 1985, and ceased business operations.

Racial segregation forbid access to many theaters to blacks, or allowed them only in the balconies. In response, the Walker Theatre in Indianapolis was opened for blacks in 1927. Part of the Walker Building at 617 Indiana Ave, which formerly housed Madam Walker's company, a $2.3 million renovation of the theater was completed in 1987. The building is listed as a National Historic Landmark.

By the time of her death, Madam Walker had helped create the role of the twentieth century, self-made American businesswoman. She not only established herself as a pioneer of the modern black hair-care and cosmetics industry, but she also set standards in the African-American community for corporate and community giving.

Madame C. J. Walker said of herself:

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. [5]

Notes

  1. Gale Cengage Learning. Black History; Booker Taliafero Washington Retrieved January 23, 2008.
  2. Gale Cengage Learning. Black History; William Edward Burghardt DuBois Retrieved January 23, 2008.
  3. Official Website of Madam C.J. Walker. Madam C.J. Walker Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Social Activist Retrieved January 23, 2008.
  4. Nosotro, Rit. Madame C. J. Walker, 1867-1919; First African-American Millionaire of the Early 20th Century Hyperhistory.com. Retrieved January 23, 2008.
  5. Official Website of Madam C.J. Walker. Madam C.J. Walker; Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Social Activist Retrieved January 23, 2008.

References

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