Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919) was an African-American businesswoman, hair care entrepreneur and philanthropist. She made her fortune by developing and marketing a hugely successful line of beauty and hair products for black women, under the company she founded, Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.

The Guinness Book of Records cites Walker as the first female who became a millionaire by her own achievements.

She was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, the first member of her family to be born free, to parents who had been slaves. At age 14, she married a man named Moses McWilliams and was widowed at age 20. She then moved to St. Louis, Missouri to join her brothers. Sarah worked as a laundress for as little as a dollar and a half a day, but she was able to save enough to educate her daughter. While living in St. Louis, she joined St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, which helped develop her speaking, interpersonal and organizational skills.

In 1905, she worked as a sales agent for Annie Malone, another black woman entrepreneur who manufactured hair care products. Sarah also consulted with a Denver pharmacist, who analyzed Malone’s formula and helped Walker formulate her own products. In addition, she often told reporters that the ingredients for her “Wonderful Hair Grower” had come to her in a dream.

In 1906 she married Charles Joseph Walker, a St. Louis newspaperman, and changed her name to “Madam C.J. Walker”. She founded the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company to sell hair care products and cosmetics. Madam Walker divorced Walker in 1910 and moved her growing manufacturing operations from St. Louis to a new industrial complex in Indianapolis. By 1917 she had the largest business in the United States owned by an African-American.

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.[2]

Madam C.J Walker’s brother shot her in the eye with a bb gun.

Walker saw her personal wealth not as an end in itself, but as a means to promote economic opportunities for others, especially black people. She took great pride in the profitable employment — and alternative to domestic labor — that her company afforded many thousands of black women who worked as commissioned agents. Her agents could earn from $5 to $15 per day in an era when unskilled white laborers were making about $11 per week. Marjorie Joyner, who started work as one of her employees, went on to lead the next generation of African-American beauty entrepreneurs.

Walker was known for her philanthropy, leaving two-thirds of her estate to educational institutions and charities, including the NAACP, the Tuskegee Institute and Bethune-Cookman College. In 1919, her $5,000 pledge to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign was the largest gift the organization had ever received.

Walker had a mansion called “Villa Lewaro” built in the wealthy New York suburb of Irvington on Hudson, New York, near the estates of John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould. She spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on furnishings. The Italianate villa was designed by architect Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state of New York, in 1915. Walker also owned townhouses in Indianapolis and New York.

Madam Walker died on May 25, 1919, at age 51, at her estate Villa Lewaro. She was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Her daughter A’Lelia Walker carried on the tradition of hospitality, opening her mother’s home and her own to writers and artists of the emergent Harlem Renaissance. She promoted important members of that movement.She converted a section of her Harlem townhouse at 108-110 West 136th Street into the Dark Tower, a salon and tearoom where Harlem and Greenwich Village artists, writers and musicians gathered. Poet Langston Hughes called her “The joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” in his autobiography The Big Sea, because of the lavish parties she hosted in Harlem and Irvington.

Ms. Walker was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 2002, Molefi Kete Asante listed Madam C. J. Walker on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. On 28 January, 1998 the USPS, as part of it’s Black Heritage Series, issued the Madam C.J. Walker Commemorative stamp.

Update: Madame C.J. Walker’s historic company still exist and has never stopped manufacturing all the original hair oils. Raymond Randolph purchased the original Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1985 from the Walker Trustees in Indianapolis, Indiana. Mr. Randolph’s family continues to keep Madame Walker’s “true” legacy alive. The historic Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and the historical documents and memorabilia can be viewed at madamewalker.net.

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