Madam C.J Walker was a civil rights activist, philanthropist and entrepreneur. She was named “the first black woman millionaire in America” for her successful line of hair care products.
Walker was the first free child born to her parents Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove (her birth name is Sarah Breedlove). She was born on a Lousiana plantation where her parents had been enslaved before the end of the Civil War. Walker was orphaned when she was 7 and survived by picking cotton with her older sister, Louvenia who she was sent to live with. At 14 she married Moses McWilliams to escape from her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell who had abused her.
Walker and her husband had one daughter, A’Lelia before McWilliams’ death two years later. Walker and her daughter moved to St. Louis where her four brothers had established themselves as barbers. Walker worked as a washerwoman, earning around $1.50 a day. She managed to save enough money to educate her daughter at the city’s public schools. She also attended night school and became friends with members of the St. Paul A.M.E Church and the National Association of Colored Women.
Walker began to suffer from a scalp condition that caused her to lose most of her hair during the 1890’s. She asked her brothers for advice as well as experimenting with a range of homemade remedies and store bought products including those made by Annie Malone, another black female entrepreneur. In 1905 she moved to Denver to work as a sales agent for Malone and married her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker.
Walker was perfecting her own hair care treatment and took the advice of her husband – a salesman – to change her name to a more recognisable name ‘Madam C.J. Walker’. She founded her own business selling Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioner with a healing formula which she claimed had come to her in a dream. Walker travelled for a year and a half throughout the South and Southeast selling her products door to door and demonstrating her “Walker Method”— involving her own formula for pomade, brushing and the use of heated combs.
In 1908 Walker moved to Pittsburgh and opened a factory and a beauty school called Lelia College. Her rapid success meant that in 1910 she moved her business, the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company to Indianapolis which was the nation’s largest inland manufacturing centre at the time. Walker trained all of her sales beauticians or ‘Walker Agents’ to promote her philosophy of ‘cleanliness and loveliness’ as a way to advance the status of African-Americans. Walker organised clubs and conventions for her employees to recognise their success in sales as well as their philanthropic and educational efforts.
Walker moved to New York in 1916 and oversaw the business from the New York office that her daughter had helped to establish. Walker became involved in Harlem’s social and political issues, contributing $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement and becoming a member of the 1917 Negro Silent Protest Parade committee. Walker was also part of a group of Harlem leaders who visited the White House to present a petition advocating federal anti-lynching legislation after a white mob murdered more than three dozen black people in East St. Louis, Illinois.
As her business grew Walker organised her agents into local and state clubs. In 1917 she held a Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention in Philadelphia, which would have been one of the first National meetings of businesswomen in the country. Walker used the opportunity to reward her agents success and urge them to take an interest in political activism so that events like those in East St. Louis never have to happen again.
Walker died a rich women, her business was valued at more than $1 million and she was the sole owner making her the first black woman millionaire in America. She was a self-made businesswoman and helped to establish a path for successful women in business as well as being a pioneer of the modern black hair-care and cosmetics industry. She set standards in the African-American community for corporate and community giving.