Question of the Month:

Life and Work of Madam Walker

August 2009

Q:  My history teacher told me that I could not write a paper on Madam C. J. Walker because she had not heard of her.  She said I should write a paper on one of the people on the approved list.  I believe I should be able to write about any famous African American.

-- F.C.. - Big Rapids, Michigan

Madam Walker A:  Many Americans, including some teachers, are not familiar with the life and work of Madam C. J. Walker, the former cotton picker and washerwoman who amassed riches and fame in the early 1900s as a hair care entrepreneur.  Although there is some debate about her net worth at the time of her death, she is often held up as this country’s first self-made African American female millionaire.  She was also a noted philanthropist and civil rights activist.  It is disappointing that your teacher does not recognize the historical significance of Madam Walker’s achievements. 

To say that Madam Walker had humble beginnings is to understate her tribulations.  She was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867.  The Civil War had ended two years earlier; therefore, it is not a surprise that her parents, Owen and Minerva, were recently emancipated Blacks—having been slaves on Robert W. Burney's Madison Parish plantation, where General Ulysses S. Grant staged the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg Battle.  Sarah was the first member of her family born into freedom.  She had one older sister, Louvenia and four brothers: Alexander, James, Solomon and Owen, Jr.  The Breedloves lived in a dilapidated windowless shack; there was no running water, no toilet, and a dirt floor on which they slept. Though they were legally free, the Breedloves lived as sharecroppers in quasi-slavery, paying rent on a cotton farm by giving virtually the entire yearly crop to the farm owner.  It was not uncommon for Black sharecroppers to go into debt with their “landlords” and have to work as economic slaves for years.  By the time Sarah was five years old she had joined her family in the cotton fields; as a female she was also expected to wash clothes for White people.

Most contemporary Americans do not use the word washerwomen and do not understand the hardships faced by these women.  In the rural deep south of the 1800s, washerwomen lived in homes without running water.  There were no washing machines; indeed, they were the washing machines.  Because river water was too dirty, washerwomen collected rainwater to use for washing.  Sarah and her mother and sister collected and carried the rainwater to huge wooded containers where the water was then boiled.  Each piece of clothing was vigorously rubbed against flat pieces of wood, wrung out, and hung to dry.  It was hard, mind-numbing work made worse by the use of lye soap. Poor and occupying society’s lowest rung, things got worse for the Breedloves when both Owen and Minerva died during an epidemic of yellow fever.  Sarah was seven years old.

After their parents died, Louvenia functioned as a surrogate mother to Sarah.  They moved to Mississippi and survived the way their parents and other poor Blacks survived: working in cotton fields and washing clothes.  Louvenia tried to improve her situation by marrying Jesse Powell, but he was a nasty and brutal man who beat her and Sarah. When she was fourteen, Sarah married laborer Moses McWilliams to escape the abuse of her brother-in-law. Their marriage lasted for six years until he died—either in an accident or race-related violence. A widow at twenty and the mother of a young daughter, Lelia (later known as A'Lelia Walker), Sarah Breedlove moved to St. Louis, Missouri because she heard that washerwomen earned more money there.  She earned $1.50 washing clothes during the day and went to school at night. Although she was unable to read and write, she made sure that her daughter was educated.  Sarah was a poor, hard-working single mother and, to add insult, she started losing her hair.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, most American households did not have indoor plumbing.  It was common for women to wash their hair infrequently, typically once a month.  The lack of proper hair care resulted in severe dandruff and scalp disease.  Sarah, like many women of that time, suffered hair loss.  Her hair loss may have been accelerated by years of working over hot tubs with harsh chemicals.  She became obsessed with finding a way to prevent women like herself from going bald.  She experimented with many homemade remedies and medicines that were in stores.  Eventually, she created a product with her own secret ingredient (sulfur) and stopped her hair loss.  She was amazed how quickly she re-grew hair. She began selling the preparation to friends and neighbors.  She got a job working for Annie N. Turnbo Malone, selling Malone’s popular Poro hair care products for black women. In 1905, after a nine year marriage to John Davis, Sarah decided to move to Denver, Colorado to live with a sister-in-law and several nieces; there she continued to sell her product to local Black women.  She took Malone’s product to a Denver pharmacist, who analyzed the formula and helped Walker refine her own product.   Encouraged by the success of her formula she, her daughter, and other female relatives began to fill jars with the hair preparations.  The attic of her home was a make-shift factory and office.

Sarah married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaperman, in 1906.  Although the marriage did not last long, she benefited from his knowledge of advertising and mail order procedures. She changed her name to "Madam C.J. Walker” and she called her business the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.  The rapid growth of the company was stunning.  Her products were now professionally packaged and marketed.  Madam Walker and her husband traveled extensively promoting their products and recruiting agents who signed contracts to sell Walker products exclusively and to follow a strict hygienic regiment. Madam Walker was a powerful public speaker, combining motivational advice with the offer of a better life to women who sold her products.  She advertised her products in Black newspapers and magazines.  Lelia oversaw the fledgling mail-order operation. From 1908 to 1910 the enterprise included the Lelia College for Walker Hair Culturists, a beauty training school in Pittsburgh.  In 1910, Madam Walker relocated the company to Indianapolis, then the country's largest manufacturing base. By 1917, she had the largest business in this country owned by an African American, and by 1919, 25,000 women were Walker agents. 

Wonderful Hair Grower

Her best selling product was “Madam C.J. Walker’s Hair Grower,” pomade sold in a tin with her image on the front.  Madam Walker did not invent the hot (straightening) comb, but she did create a version with more widely-spaced teeth to accommodate the coarser and heavier hair of Blacks; the straightening comb was an important part of the hair care regimen that she practiced and promoted.

I remember sitting in a classroom at Mattie T. Blount High School in Prichard, Alabama debating the life of Madam Walker.  This was in the mid-1970s.  All of my classmates—and I do mean all—had Afros.  I do not remember the teacher’s name but it was a middle-aged woman.  She talked about how Madam Walker had overcome a life of almost unimaginable hardships to create a business that empowered thousands of women.  She said that Madam Walker promoted the idea of Black economic self-sufficiency. She mentioned Madam Walker’s many philanthropic efforts: donating five thousand dollars to Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls; giving money to restore Frederick Douglass’ home; raising and donating funds for the NAACP’s fight against lynching, and much more.  We heard this, but we could not get beyond what we believed to be a fatal flaw in her work: Madam Walker’s system—a shampoo, the application of pomade, vigorous brushing, and the use of hot-iron combs—left women with a shiny, smooth coiffure.  In other words, she had become rich by selling a product that straightened hair, and in effect, made Black women look more like White women, and, she did this at a time when looking Black was mocked and belittled in the United States.  We were members of the Black-is-Beautiful generation and it was easy for us to dismiss Madam Walker as a woman who did not care for her race.

These many years later I realize that we sold Madam Walker short.  The nation we inherited is better because Madam Walker was in it.  She was more than a poverty-stricken laundress-turned-entrepreneur who built a cosmetics empire that included a factory in Indianapolis, salons in several cities, and thousands of sales agents/hairdressers.  She could not read or write, but she gave thousands of dollars to historically Black colleges, and she made sure that her daughter A'Lelia Walker—who became her business partner—was a college graduate.  She not only empowered thousands of African American women by giving them options to not be washerwomen and maids, but she modeled a strong feminism in her personal life.  On more than one occasion she challenged the Black male leaders of her day, most notably Booker T. Washington, to abandon the everyday sexism that they practiced.   In her many speeches she urged her audiences, mostly  Black women, to work hard, study hard, and demand to be treated as first-class citizens.

In the early years of the 1900s she was a courageous foe against lynching.  In 1917, for example, she and other Black leaders went to the White House to confront President Woodrow Wilson for his opposition to federal anti-lynching legislation.  This is the kind of radicalism that used to get African Americans killed.  The President refused to see the Black coalition.  At her business’ national convention that year, the Walker agents sent a telegram to the President urging him to support anti-lynching legislation.  She also organized her many sales agents to voice their concern over the brutal killing of 100 Blacks during the East St. Louis riot of 1917, one of the worse race riots in United States history.  When she died on May 25, 1919, she left two-thirds of her estate to educational institutions and charities, including the NAACP, Tuskegee Institute, and Bethune-Cookman College.

People make decisions based on the options that they have and the options that they believe they have.  Born a few years after slavery and living during the Jim Crow period, Madam Walker had few options for success.  Given the severity of her hardships and the scope of her successes, Madam Walker’s story should be seen as more than another American rags-to-riches tale; instead, it should be seen as a testimony to human resilience.  I am disappointed that your teacher would not let you write a research paper about Madam Walker, and I am saddened that your teacher does not know her.  Until people like Madam Walker become a part of the everyday educational curriculum we will continue to need Black History Month.  I gently recommend that anyone interested in Madam Walker begin by reading the fine biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker (Simon & Schuster, 2001), written by A'Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter.

August 2009 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum


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