Madam C.J. Walker
This is What American Dreams are made of
If the tabloids are to be believed, female entrepreneurs didn’t exist before Kim Kardashian. However, history has a different story to tell. Women have always built and run their own businesses, often with far more strife than even that seen within the Kardashian home.
Two years after the end of the Civil War in 1867, Sarah Breedlove was born. In a family of six children, she was the first to be born into freedom, and she was born with a fire that she would carry for the rest of her life. Life and circumstance, though, were hell bent on doing all that they could to snuff it out.
The Dirty South
Life in Louisiana after the Civil War was dangerous for blacks, and they would become even more so for Sarah when at seven-years-old both her parents died. She was left almost completely alone in a hostile world. Her four brothers had struck out on their own and her only sister, Louvinia, lived in Vicksburg, Mississippi. So, at age ten Vicksburg became her new home. While working her fingers to the bone as a domestic, Sarah also had to endure the vile environment created by her sister’s husband, Jesse Powell. From the beginning, Sarah was desperate for escape. Several years later, she saw an opportunity to, starting her habit of snatching up lucky chances whenever they were presented. At age 14, Sarah was married to Moses McWilliams.
A New Life
By all accounts Sarah’s marriage to Moses went as well as could be expected. In 1885, Sarah gave birth to her only daughter, Lelia. Only two years later Moses died, leaving a 20-year-old Sarah alone once again.
Even though Sarah never had any formal education and was barley literate, her intelligence coupled with her fortitude propelled her forward. She decided to move to St. Louis, Missouri where three of her brothers lived and worked as barbers.
A New Perspective
The city of St. Louis opened up Sarah’s entire world. Even if life was hard, the effects that the move had on her were immediate. First, she enrolled Lelia in public school, giving her daughter the education that she never had but yearned for. Second, she got involved with social life in the area, especially as a member of St. Paul A.M.E Church. This introduced her to a breed of person that she had never before encountered - the black female social activist.
This introduction into the world of empowered, socially-conscious black women is perhaps the thing that had the greatest impact on the trajectory of Sarah’s life - arguably more so than the discovery of Annie Turbo Malone’s haircare products. See, selling hair products was a means to exercise the lessons that Sarah absorbed during her time in St. Louis where the community as a whole came together to celebrate their culture and the strength inherent in their community. Those interactions fed an intelligence and boldness inherent in Sarah’s personality. They reinforced the idea that for women, and even black women, taking control of their own lives was an important and achievable step towards reshaping their communities, societies, and world in an image that better suited them. For Sarah, the power and grace she observed in those around her was revelatory.
Despite feeling invigorated by this new community, Sarah’s life remained a constant challenge. Living conditions were harsh, her salary was barely more than $1 per day, her job as a laundress was beginning to cause permanent damage to her back, and on top of all that, her hair was falling out.
Poor hygiene was at the root of the problem that many African American women faced at the time. Luckily, these women lived in a bold new world of cosmetic innovation. One such innovator was Annie Turnbo Malone who’s products revolutionized the haircare market simply because they got the job done without using old-fashioned ingredients such as butter, oil, and goose fat, or by using new-fangled ingredients such as lye, which had the unfortunate side-effect of causing irreparable burns on the scalp. Annie was a genius in her own right, teaching herself chemistry, hitting upon the formula that would make her a fortune, and then pursuing that fortune relentlessly, but she might have made a mistake by selling her products to Sarah. Annie’s formula helped Sarah regrow some of her hair, but the product had to fight against the negative environmental factors that were still present in Sarah’s life. However, that battle didn’t continue for long.
As Sarah later famously stated, “I got my start by giving myself a start.” When working as a laundress, she had a lot of time to think. She thought about her future. She thought about her daughter’s future. She knew that she could not work as a laundress forever. When she looked into the dirty water at the laundry she saw her future, and she didn’t like what she saw. This is when she decided to quit her job and began selling Annie Malone’s products. This kept Sarah satisfied for a little while. Then she began experimenting with hair growth formulas of her own. Sarah considered the process of developing a miracle formula, getting it patented and produced, marketing it across the nation, and doing all of it while being a black woman in early 20th Century America and thought, “Piece of cake.”
Inventions and Reinventions
In 1894, Sarah met John Davis and decided to try a second marriage on for size. She found that it didn’t suit her. Around 1903, Sarah left her second husband and moved to Denver, Colorado. There, she began producing her own hair growth product. This became easier for her when in 1906 she married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman that she had known in St. Louis. His financial support gave her the freedom to stop selling Annie Malone’s products and devote all of her attention to her own budding business. His expertise in marketing also gave her the knowledge to get her product line off the ground. This new marriage resulted in a bit of personal rebranding as well. Sarah adopted the honorific “Madam” and began going by the name Madam C.J. Walker. Now, with a new product and a new brand, she was in direct competition with Annie Turnbo Malone.
Taking The Show On The Road
Don’t be fooled by Walker’s apparent ease at finding success. The road to triumph was long and hard, and any person with less grit would’ve given up. Walker, undeterred by hard work, took to selling her products door-to-door. Soon, she put her daughter in charge of the business in Denver and moved to Pittsburgh. From there she went to Indianapolis, and then to New York, then throughout the Caribbean, opening beauty parlors along the way. It was in Indianapolis that the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was established. As her business grew, so did her dedicated sales force. Most of the staff at her company were female, and over the course of her life Walker trained nearly 20,000 women.
More Than Money
By 1911, Walker was living in a mansion in Irvington, New York. She had taken a swing at the American dream and knocked it right out of the park. Yet, her immense wealth didn’t eclipse what she had learned all those years ago when she was a simple laundress in St. Louis: have pride and concern for your community. As Walker herself said,
“I want you to understand that your first duty is to humanity. I want others to look at us and see that we care not just about ourselves but about others.”
Walker supported many African American and civic groups and was also a patron of the arts. However, her greatest and most prolific work centered around protecting other African Americans. In July of 1917, a mob murdered over three dozen blacks in St. Louis, Illinois. In response, Walker joined a group of Harlem leaders who visited the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation. Walker gave $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund, and also bequeathed nearly $100,000 to orphanages and other institutions. At the time of her death, she directed that two-thirds of future net profits of her estate be given to charity.
In Her Own Words
Madam C.J. Walker was a woman who truly went from rags to riches through courage, ingenuity, and sheer force of personality. However, unlike most women in history, her story wasn’t left to others to tell. As if her voice was too powerful to be silenced by death or the passage of time, she provides the commentary to her own journey. We are immeasurably lucky to have the benefit of her own words narrating the twists and turns of her life. So, it stands to reason that in this retelling she should also get the last word.