By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
Black hair care has been a booming business since pioneering leaders like Madam C.J. Walker saw how African American women (and their men) invested in their hair. According to a 2019 Essence article, the Black hair care industry ranked $2.5 billion in the $1.2 trillion spent by African American consumers- thus it is no surprise that Walker, the beauty entrepreneur, was recorded as the “First Black Self-Made Millionaire.” Walker has gone down in history as the first self-made African American woman, however, she was so much more than her wealth- she was a pioneer, visionary, powerful leader and activist who fought for the rights of her people.
“I think people are really surprised when they learn how active and learn how politically conscious Madam C.J. Walker was. She had grown up in Delta, Louisiana, which was an area that was really racked with political violence so I think this consciousness about the rights of African Americans was planted in her mind very early,” said A’Lelia Bundles, Walker historian and great-great granddaughter.
“Self-made,” the title of the Netflix semi-biographical show on Walker’s life starring Octavia Spencer, is the key to the entrepreneur’s success and millionaire status. Born Sarah Breedlove, the youngest daughter of formerly enslaved parents on December 23, 1867, Walker did not always have it easy, nor was she clearly on the trajectory towards becoming a well-known entrepreneur in the beauty industry.
Both of Walker’s parents died by early adolescence (about 7 years old), and she was sent to live with her older sister and brother-in-law. At the age of 10, Walker moved with her sister and brother in law to Vicksburg, Mississippi where she picked cotton, and though not enslaved, she experienced oppressive work environments and the brutal force of her brother-in-law.
To escape the challenges of cotton picking and her brother-in-law, Walker married Moses McWilliams at the age of 14. With him she had her daughter, A’lelia, however McWilliams died by the time their daughter was two- leaving the young Walker widowed and a single-mother.
The future hair-guru moved to St. Louis with her baby girl, where her brothers had established careers as barbers. There Walker worked in a washroom, earning enough money to send A’lelia to the local public school, while she also worked to attend classes in the evening, according to Biography.com.
While in St. Louis Walker became involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she met Black members of the upper echelon, who inspired her towards her dreams. She became a member of St. Paul A.M.E. Church’s choir and even a member of the National Association of Colored Women. Also in St. Louis, Walker first met the man who would give her the name that she would ultimately be known as for the rest of history- Charles Joseph Walker- who also helped build the Walker Company.
In the 1890s, Walker developed a scalp disorder that resulted in extreme hair loss. She became interested in hair care treatments and products and eventually began to experiment with ways to treat her scalp challenges and promote hair growth.
Hair care entrepreneur and another Black woman millionaire, Annie Turbo Malone of Denver, Colorado, hired Walker to work for her in 1905 as a commission-based sales agent.
While in Denver, the budding entrepreneur began developing the Walker System and she and her husband began marketing, selling and building the Walker Company empire. The Walker System included utilizing products to prepare the scalp, hair lotions and an iron comb- often referred to as the “hot comb.” Walker’s pomade was successful, not only because of the product, but the marketing, which was unique, clearly targeted to Black women and emphasized the health and prestige of the women who utilized Walker’s wares.
In 1907 the Walkers were touring the South and Southeast marketing and selling their products and by the following year the entrepreneur opened a beauty school and factory in Pittsburgh. By 1910, Walker was extremely wealthy and relocated the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company to Indianapolis, where she also trained her own sales representatives to promote, what became, a lifestyle brand, as the beauty product connoted an overall lovely life. Further, the entrepreneur created clubs, enriching and fun experiences for her sales representatives, which would not only be as a means of entertaining, but also highlighting the top sellers and those doing meaningful work to benefit the Black community.
Revolutionizing Black hair and beauty, Walker’s company and system gave her leverage to focus on activism, which was always near to her heart.
“She wanted to use the power of these hundreds of African American women, who were her sales agents, to speak out on political issues of the day to make a difference to race consciousness,” Bundles said.
In 1913, the same year she and her husband divorced, Walker donated the most money by an African American when she offered funds to help with the construction of the Indianapolis NAACP.
“As she became more powerful and as people called on her to contribute to more organizations like the NAACP, she wanted to make a difference and make people more conscious and try to help pass legislation that would make lynching a federal crime,” Bundles explained.
While Walker worked hard continuing to grow her business, tour throughout the Carribean, and fight for justice, her daughter A’Lelia began networking in New York City- just at the rise of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1916, Walker officially moved to a townhouse in Harlem and became socially, professionally and politically active.
The entrepreneur was instrumental in organizing the historic July 28, 1917 Silent Parade in New York City, which was held to protest against lynchings.
“In Harlem there was a Silent Protest Parade where 10,000 African Americans marched up 5th Avenue. [Walker] was on the Executive Committee of the New York NAACP which had organized that march,” Bundles said, before further illuminating her great-great grandmother’s lie and legacy. “After this Silent Protest Parade, she and a group of Harlem leaders traveled to Washington, D.C. hoping to meet with President Woodrow Wilson, hoping to persuade him to pass legislation that would make lynching a federal crime.”
In 1918, Walker built a mansion in Irvington, about 20 miles outside of New York City, called, “Villa Lewaro,” and ever true to her people, the Italianate, 34-room, 20,000 square feet construction was designed by Black architect Vertner Tandy. The mansion was used as a gathering place for the Black elite and thought leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.
Villa Lewaro is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark and is explained as “a restored historic residence that embodies the optimism and perseverance of the American entrepreneurial spirit,” according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Walker died the year after Villa Lewaro’s construction from hypertension on May 25, 1919, however over a century later, the entrepreneur is being heralded as a trailblazing visionary, whose life is still being celebrated today, such as with the Netflix show “Self Made.”
Historian, author, filmmaker and professor Henry Louis Gates wrote in his book Colored People (1994), that Walker should have a national holiday. He further elaborated on this notion in a PBS article originally published in The Root.
“As I explained in my memoir, Colored People, ‘So many [Black] people still get their hair straightened that it’s a wonder we don’t have a national holiday for [Madam] C.J. Walker, who invented the process for straightening kinky hair, rather than for Dr. King.” I was joking, of course, but mostly about the holiday; the history and politics of African-American hair have been as charged as any “do” in our culture, and somewhere in the story, Madam C.J. Walker usually makes an appearance,” Gates wrote.