The Story Of Madam CJ Walker

March is celebrated as Women’s month allover the world and so, we thought to share with you stories of amazing women in business and very vital aspect of life. We hope to do this until the end of March but consistently tell these stories from now up until March 8[International Women’s Day].

Today, we open this story telling series by sharing the story of the life of Madam CJ Walker. The popular American first woman self-made millionaire. Some of you might have come across her story or watched the movie on Netflix. We are retelling this story and inspiring both men and women to know that no matter how difficult life is, as long as you are persistent, you will excel!

Sarah Breedlove to CJ Walker

Sarah Breedlove was born on December 23, 1867, close to Delta, Louisiana. Her parents were Owen and Minerva (Anderson) Breedlove. She had five siblings, who included an older sister, Louvenia, and four brothers: Alexander, James, Solomon, and Owen Jr. Her older siblings were enslaved by Robert W. Burney on his Madison Parish plantation. Sarah was the first child in her family born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Her mother died in 1872, likely from cholera (an epidemic traveled with river passengers up the Mississippi, reaching Tennessee and related areas in 1873). Her father remarried but died a year later.

She was orphaned at the age of seven. Sarah moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, at the age of 10, where she lived with Louvenia and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell. She started working as a child as a domestic servant. “I had little or no opportunity when I started out in life, having been left an orphan and being without mother or father since I was seven years of age,” she often recounted. She also recounted that she had only three months of formal education, which she learned during Sunday school literacy lessons at the church she attended during her earlier years.

To Becoming CJ Walker

In 1882, at the age of 14, Sarah married 22-year old Moses McWilliams to escape abuse from her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell. Sarah and Moses had one daughter, Lelia McWilliams, who was born on June 6, 1885. When Moses died in 1887, Sarah was twenty and Lelia was two. Sarah remarried in 1894, but left her second husband, John Davis, around 1903.

In January 1906, Sarah married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman she had known in St. Louis, Missouri. Through this marriage, she became known as Madam C. J. Walker. The couple divorced in 1912; Charles died in 1926. Lelia McWilliams adopted her stepfather’s surname and became known as A’Lelia Walker.

The Becoming

In 1888, she and her daughter moved to St. Louis, where three of her brothers lived. Sarah found work as a laundress, earning barely more than a dollar a day. She was determined to make enough money to provide her daughter with formal education. During the 1880s, she lived in a community where Ragtime music was developed; she sang at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church and started to yearn for an educated life as she watched the community of women at her church.

Sarah suffered severe dandruff and other scalp ailments, including baldness, due to skin disorders and the application of harsh products to cleanse hair and wash clothes. Other contributing factors to her hair loss included poor diet, illnesses, and infrequent bathing and hair washing during a time when most Americans lacked indoor plumbing, central heating, and electricity. Madam C. J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

Initially, Sarah learned about hair care from her brothers, who were barbers in St. Louis. Around the time of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World’s Fair at St. Louis in 1904), she became a commission agent selling products for Annie Malone, an African-American hair-care entrepreneur, millionaire, and owner of the Poro Company. Sales at the exposition were a disappointment since the African-American community was largely ignored.

While working for Malone, who would later become Walker’s largest rival in the hair-care industry, Sarah began to take her new knowledge and develop her own product line. In July 1905, when she was 37 years old, Sarah and her daughter moved to Denver, Colorado, where she continued to sell products for Malone and develop her own hair-care business. A controversy developed between Annie Malone and Sarah because Malone accused Sarah of stealing her formula, a mixture of petroleum jelly and sulfur that had been in use for a hundred years.

Following her marriage to Charles Walker in 1906, Sarah became known as Madam C. J. Walker. She marketed herself as an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams. (“Madam” was adopted from women pioneers of the French beauty industry. Her husband, who was also her business partner, provided advice on advertising and promotion; Sarah sold her products door to door, teaching other black women how to groom and style their hair.

In 1906, Walker put her daughter in charge of the mail-order operation in Denver while she and her husband traveled throughout the southern and eastern United States to expand the business. In 1908, Walker and her husband relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they opened a beauty parlor and established Lelia College to train “hair culturists.” As an advocate of black women’s economic independence, she opened training programs in the “Walker System” for her national network of licensed sales agents who earned healthy commissions (Michaels, PhD. 2015).

After Walker closed the business in Denver in 1907, A’lelia ran the day-to-day operations from Pittsburgh. In 1910, Walker established a new base in Indianapolis. A’lelia also persuaded her mother to establish an office and beauty salon in New York City’s growing Harlem neighborhood in 1913; it became a center of African-American culture.

In 1910, Walker relocated her businesses to Indianapolis, where she established the headquarters for the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She initially purchased a house and factory at 640 North West Street. Walker later built a factory, hair salon, and beauty school to train her sales agents, and added a laboratory to help with research. She also assembled a staff that included Freeman Ransom, Robert Lee Brokenburr, Alice Kelly, and Marjorie Joyner, among others, to assist in managing the growing company. Many of her company’s employees, including those in key management and staff positions, were women. Madam Walker and several friends in her automobile, 1911.

Walker’s method of grooming was designed to promote hair growth and to condition the scalp through the use of her products. The system included a shampoo, a pomade stated to help hair grow, strenuous brushing, and applying iron combs to hair; the method claimed to make lackluster and brittle hair become soft and luxuriant.  Walker’s product line had several competitors. Similar products were produced in Europe and manufactured by other companies in the United States, which included her major rivals, Annie Turnbo Malone’s Poro System from which she derived her original formula and later, Sarah Spencer Washington’s Apex System.

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, the company claimed to have trained nearly 20,000 women. Dressed in a characteristic uniform of white shirts and black skirts and carrying black satchels, they visited houses around the United States and in the Caribbean 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.

In addition to training in sales and grooming, Walker showed other black women how to budget, build their own businesses, and encouraged them to become financially independent. In 1917, inspired by the model of the National Association of Colored Women, Walker began organizing her sales agents into state and local clubs. The result was the establishment of the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents (predecessor to the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culturists Union of America).

Its first annual conference convened in Philadelphia during the summer of 1917 with 200 attendees. The conference is believed to have been among the first national gatherings of women entrepreneurs to discuss business and commerce. During the convention Walker gave prizes to women who had sold the most products and brought in the most new sales agents. She also rewarded those who made the largest contributions to charities in their communities.

Walker’s name became even more widely known by the 1920s, after her death, as her company’s business market expanded beyond the United States to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica.

Her Net Worth

Walker died on May 25, 1919, from kidney failure and complications of hypertension at the age of 51. Walker’s remains are interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.

At the time of her death, Walker was considered to be worth between a half million and a million dollars. She was the wealthiest African-American woman in America. According to Walker’s obituary in The New York Times, “she said herself two years ago [in 1917] that she was not yet a millionaire, but hoped to be some time, not that she wanted the money for herself, but for the good she could do with it.” The obituary also noted that same year, her $250,000 mansion was completed at the banks of the Hudson at Irvington. Her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, later became the president of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.

Walker’s personal papers are preserved at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis. Her legacy also continues through two properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places: Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York, and the Madame Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis. Villa Lewaro was sold following A’Lelia Walker’s death to a fraternal organization called the Companions of the Forest in America in 1932. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has designated the privately owned property a National Treasure.

Indianapolis’s Walker Manufacturing Company headquarters building, renamed the Madame Walker Theatre Center, opened in December 1927. It included the company’s offices and factory as well as a theater, beauty school, hair salon and barbershop, restaurant, drugstore, and a ballroom for the community. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

A museum in Atlanta is devoted to Walker, as well as historic radio station WERD. Established in 2004, the museum is located at the site of a former Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Shoppe.

In Summary

Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove; December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919) was an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist. She is recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in America in the Guinness Book of World Records. Multiple sources mention that although other women (like Mary Ellen Pleasant) might have been the first, their wealth is not as well-documented.

Walker made her fortune by developing and marketing a line of cosmetics and hair care products for black women through the business she founded, Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She became known also for her philanthropy and activism. She made financial donations to numerous organizations and became a patron of the arts. Villa Lewaro, Walker’s lavish estate in Irvington, New York, served as a social gathering place for the African-American community. At the time of her death, she was considered the wealthiest African-American businesswoman and wealthiest self-made black woman in America.

Culled from wikipedia.com

photo credit : google images

2 Replies to “The Story Of Madam CJ Walker”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *