SOMETIMES TO SUCCEED, CREATE YOUR OWN PATH; The inspiring story of Madam C.J. WALKER
During the 19th century, the United States of America was in a transformative state. The large conflict between widespread racism and the Civil Rights frontier had come to a head and African-Americans made an effort to establish themselves within a society that was gradually becoming more accepting. There is no figure that encompasses that struggle more than Madam C.J. Walker – the wealthiest African-American woman of her time!
Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, Madam C.J. Walker spent her early years as a slave, cotton picking on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana with her six siblings. Her parents became sharecroppers (a tenant farmer who gives a part of each crop as rent) after the Civil War but poverty still plagued her family. Unfortunately, her parents kicked the bucket when she was only 7.
Walker continued to struggle even into her early adulthood. After two failed marriages at ages 14 and 20, She and her daughter moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where three of her brothers lived. She found work as a laundress, earning barely more than a dollar a day.
Madam C.J. Walker became heavily involved in the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Louis. She became inspired to pursue her own dreams after listening to the successful educated Black women who attended her church. After staying in St. Louis for a few years, she moved to Denver to act as an aid for Annie Turnbo Malone, a fellow Black female entrepreneur, as she attempted to expand her haircare business.
Though quite successful as a sales agent, her own struggle with hair loss due to use of lye and poor diet led her to experiment with homemade hair care remedies. She consulted with her brothers (all barbers) and a pharmacist about which ingredients and products she should use to stop further hair loss. In due time, she perfected her formula and launched her own curative shampoo and ointment which targeted African American women with textured, coarse hair. She went on to form the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, renaming herself Madam C.J. Walker after her then-husband, Charles Joseph Walker.
At this point in time beauty and hair care manufacturing was not a major industry. It was also during this period that African-American beauty needs were still neglected by major companies as they focused mainly on white Americans. Thanks to these circumstances, her fortunes grew quickly. She opened a manufacturing facility in Indianapolis where she trained Black females in sales and entrepreneurial skills. Between 1911 and 1919, during the height of her career, Walker and her company employed several thousand women as sales agents for its products. By 1917, her company had trained nearly 20,000 women. Clad up in a characteristic uniform of white offering Walker’s hair pomade and other products packaged in tin containers carrying her image. Walker understood the power of advertising and brand awareness. Heavy advertising, primarily in African American newspapers and magazines, in addition to Walker’s frequent travels to promote her products, helped make Walker and her products well known in the United States.
Over the course of a decade, Madame C.J. Walker’s business grew in leaps and bounds and had employed over 40,000 African American women and men. This made her one of the first American women (of any colour) to become a self-made millionaire. Using her great fortune, Walker also went on to make many contributions to the Black community. She opened a Black-only YMCA in Indianapolis, funded tuition for 7 Black students at the Tuskegee Institute, and led a campaign during WWI to provide an ambulance for Black soldiers serving abroad. Even upon her death in 1919, Walker continued to give back; she left two thirds of her estate to various charities.
Madam C.J. Walker commanded the global stage with her ingenious business acumen, as well as her tireless efforts to open more doors for African-Americans. Her story is an inspiration to move through life with courage, passion, and strength.
In her own words, “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I got 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.”