By Tara Mae
Madam C. J. Walker was a pioneer. Listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the first self-made female American millionaire, her legacy inspired generations after her. A philanthropist in both principle and practice, she was a responsible employer who created social services and other opportunities to benefit her employees. Many of the extremely monied families of her day were either born into wealth or accrued it as robber barons. Born into poverty, Walker used her financial and social capital as a means of improving the lives of her family, her workers, and society.
A single mother, Walker did not have the luxury of failure. She had to provide for herself and her daughter. Walker understood the needs of her employees because she had experienced those same needs. The youngest child of former slaves, she was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, the only child born free. Orphaned by the age of seven, she was married by the age of 14, and widowed by 20. Walker’s business grew from her own experience: the products she made were ones that she herself wanted.
As a child, Walker worked as a domestic servant and married so young to escape her brother-in-law’s abuse. She had three months of formal education: any other schooling came from Sunday school literacy lessons. After her first husband’s death, she and her daughter A’Leila moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where three of Walker’s brothers lived.
She remarried to a man who proved himself to be drunk, abusive, and unfaithful. Resolute in her ambition to earn enough money to give A’Lelia a proper education, Walker worked as a laundress; A’Lelia went to Knoxville College in Tennessee. Walker forged a life for herself, independent of her ne’er-do-well husband. She sang in the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, and befriended the women congregants.
Her business plan came from her own needs. Having suffered from dandruff, hair loss, and other scalp ailments, Walker was driven to pursue hair care solutions. She initially learned from her brothers, who were barbers, and then became a commission agent for Black beauty entrepreneur Annie Malone, who would become her top competitor when she developed her own line, and accuse her of stealing formulas. The formulas each woman used were variations on the same home remedies that had been around for at least 100 years.
Walker left her husband in 1903. During this time, Walker started developing her own product line. She promoted herself as a cosmetic cream retailer and independent hairdresser. Her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker was her business partner. It was through this marriage that she adopted the name Madam C.J. Walker. She chose “Madam” as a reference to female pioneers of the French beauty industry and as a way to discourage white people from calling her “Auntie.”
Selling her homemade products door-to-door, Walker instructed Black women on hair routines designed for their hair textures. After living in and expanding her business to places such as Denver, Colorado, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Indianapolis, Indiana, Walker built a factory, hair salon, and beauty school that trained her sales agents. She established a laboratory to further research. And most of her employees, including those in positions of power, were women.
A’Lelia also convinced Walker to open an office and beauty salon in Harlem in 1913; it became a Black cultural center. She and her daughter settled in New York in 1916. By this time, Walker and her husband had divorced. She continued to train women to become “beauty culturists” who promoted her “The Walker System,” a hair care routine that was designed to stimulate hair growth for Black women. Walker was the first to popularize hot combs, but maintained that any hair straightening results were a side effect not the goal.
By 1917, the company claimed that it had trained 20,000 women. Walker’s training went beyond teaching them how to work within her business model. She provided instruction on how to budget and form their own businesses. Walker encouraged them to become financially independent and gave them the means to do it.
The women traveled throughout the United States and Carribean, offering Walker’s products. Walker personally traveled throughout the country, Carribean, and Central America to train employees. She understood the power of good pr and advertising. In addition to her promotional tours, Walker prominently advertised in primarily Black publications. Through these exercises, her products became very well-known and gained a strong fanbase.
As Walker’s empire and fortune grew, so did her charity. Perhaps inspired by her own journey, she initially focused on assisting individuals who demonstrated an interest in self-improvement, but later focused on causes and organizations. At the annual meeting of the National Negro Business League in 1912, she noted, “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." With this endeavor in mind, she founded the Madam C.J. Walker Benevolent Association in 1916.
It was staffed by employees of her company, and embodied Walker’s belief that the good will and publicity generated by charitable efforts was also beneficial to business. The following year, motivated by the model of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), Walker began organizing her workers into local and state clubs. This led to the founding of the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents, which was the precursor to Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culturists Union of America. Membership cost 25 a month, death benefits were included, and participants were privy to business conferences that featured Walker as the keynote speaker. These gatherings were designed to encourage networking as well as personal and professional economic growth.
Walker’s move to New York coincided with her increased involvement in political and social activism.The same energy she used to grow her business, Walker applied to her philanthropy. She concentrated on improving the lives of Black people, particularly Black women. This grew naturally out of her business model. Walker was a major donor the anti-lynching campaigns run by the NAACP and NACW. She spearheaded the movement to save the former home of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.
Holding court in the social milieu of Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington, Walker used her wealth as a resource while avoiding ideological clashes. Rather than choose a side in the schism between DuBois and Washington, Walker determined to collaborate with any individual whose industry was to “advance the race.” Upon her arrival in New York, she hired Vertner Tandy, the first licensed Black architect in New York City, to design her home in Irvington-on-Hudson. Dubbed Villa Lewaro, Waker planned for the house to be a place to gather for Blacks and an inspiration for others to pursue their goals. The first event she hosted there was to honor Emmett Jay Scott, the Assistant Secretary for Negro Affairs of the U.S. Department of War.
During World War I, Walker was a staunch advocate of the Circle for Negro War Relief, which fought for the care and welfare of Black soldiers. She championed a training camp for Black army officers. As a member of the NAACP executive committee, she helped arrange the Silent Protest Parade in New York City, which drew more than 8,000 Blacks protesting a riot in East Saint Louis that had killed 39 Blacks.
In 1918, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs recognized her for having made the largest individual monetary contribution to the fight to save Douglass’ house. Prior to her death in 1919, Walker promised $5,000 to the NAACP anti-lycning fund, at that point the biggest gift the organization had ever received. Her will dictated that two-thirds of any future business profits go to charity, and she bequeathed nearly $100,000 to institutions, orphanages, and individual people.
Leaving behind a legacy of good work, Walker died the richest Black woman in America. The products that brought her fortune still exist today. Walker’s true wealth came from the programs and ideals she upheld.