Madame C. J. Walker
(Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker)
A black hair-care tycoon,
Madam C.J. Walker
was America's first woman self-made millionaire (of any race).
Birthplace: Delta, Louisiana on the Burney family plantation.
Born: December 23, 1867
Died: May 25, 1919
In 1905 Sarah Breedlove developed a conditioning treatment for straightening hair. Starting with door-to-door sales of her
cosmetics, Madame C. J. Walker amassed a fortune. In 1910 she built a factory in Indianapolis to manufacture her line of
cosmetics. Before her death in 1919 she was a millionaire, one of the most successful business executives in the early half of the
One of the "first American women of any race or rank" to become a
millionaire through her own efforts was Sarah Breedlove Walker. Sarah
Breedlove was born in 1867 to Minerva and Owen Breedlove on the shores
of the Mississippi River in northeast Louisiana. Sarah's parents, both
ex-slaves, were sharecroppers who lived on the Burney plantation in Delta,
Louisiana. Orphaned at the age of six, she was raised by her sister,
Louvenia, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Because of her impoverished
background she had only a limited formal education. She was married to a
Mr. McWilliams at fourteen, "to get a home" (as described by Walker
herself), and had a daughter, A'Lelia, in 1885. Widowed at twenty in 1887,
Sarah and her daughter moved from Vicksburg to St. Louis, Missouri. For
eighteen years, from 1887-1905, she supported herself and her daughter by
work as a washerwoman.
While in St. Louis in 1905, Walker said she had an idea to begin a cosmetics business when she began to lose her hair. After a
prayer for God to save her hair, she claimed that in her dream she received a formula for a unique hair growth treatment
(Stussy) for Negro women's hair. Sarah developed a new treatment for straightening hair. Before this time, African American
women who wanted to de-kink their hair had to place it on a flat surface and press it with a flat iron. She invented her hair
softener and a special straightening comb. For millions of women at that time these inventions were a godsend. Mixing her
soaps and ointments in washtubs and kitchen utensils, while adapting the existing hairdressing techniques and modifying curling
tools. She added the prefix Madame to her name and took to the road, soon demonstrated her excellent marketing skills to sell
her hair products door-to-door.
The elements of the System were a shampoo, a pomade "hair-grower", vigorous brushing, and the application of heated
iron combs to the hair. The "method" transformed stubborn, lusterless hair into shining smoothness. The Madame C. J.
Walker manufacturing Company employed principally women who, before the years that preceded the national growth
of beauty shops in the United States, carried their treatments to the home. Known as "Walker Agents," they became
familiar figures throughout the United States and Caribbean where they made their "house calls", always dressed in the
characteristic white shirtwaists tucked into long black skirts and carrying the black satchels, containing preparations and
combing apparatus necessary for dressing hair. The most important of the preparations demonstrated was Madame
C.J. Walker's Hair Grower. Sales of the Pomade and a collection of sixteen other beauty products, many packaged
decoratively in tin containers who carried the portrait of Madame Walker, accompanied by heavy advertising in mainly
Negro newspapers and magazines and her own frequent instructional tours, made Madame Walker one of the best
known African American women in the country by the 1920's. Her fame spread to Europe, where the Walker System
coiffure of dancer Josephine Baker so fascinated Parisians in the 1920's that a French company produced a comparable
pomade, calling it Baker-Fix. In the United States, the business activity of Madame Walker was emulated by other
Negro women, with successful women including Mrs. Annie M. Turnbo Malone (with her "Poro System" and the "Poro
Colleges" in St. Louis and Chicago) and Madame Sarah Spencer Washington (with her Apex System headquartered in
One editorialist commented in 1919 that it was a "noteworthy fact that the largest and most lucrative business
enterprises conducted by colored people in America have been launched by women -- namely Madame Walker and
Mrs. Malone." (Stussy)
Encouraged by success in St. Louis selling her cosmetic products and
method, she moved to Denver, Colorado in 1906 to join her brother who
had moved earlier. Six months later she married a newspaperman, Charles J.
Walker. She kept the name even after business differences ended the
marriage. Proceeding door-to-door, she demonstrated her method to the
women of Denver. Sarah developed what was to become known as The
Walker Method or The Walker System She attracted not only clients for
her products but agent-operators; she called then "hair culturists," "scalp
specialists," and "beauty culturists" rather than "hair straighteners" (a term
used by others). With the agent-operators conducting sales, Sarah
concentrated her efforts on the instruction of her methods and on the
manufacture of the products.
After about a year she established a business and manufacturing
headquarters in Denver, Madame Walker traveled extensively in the South and East giving lectures and demonstrations of her
products to Negro homes, clubs, and churches. Her success in the increasing business saw her organize a second office in
Pittsburgh in 1908, which her daughter A'Lelia managed.
In 1910 transferred operations from the Denver and Pittsburgh offices to a
new headquarters in Indianapolis, where a plant was constructed to serve as
center of the Walker enterprises. The company was the Walker College of
Hair Culture and Walker Manufacturing Company (note: the headquarters
of Walker manufacturing Company are now in Tuskegee, Alabama). In
1906 Walker turned the mail order business to her daughter who used
Pittsburgh as headquarters for Walker College, for training "hair culturists".
The Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, headquartered in
Indianapolis, Indiana, of which Madame Walker was president and sole
owner, provided employment for some three thousand persons. Overnight
she found herself in business, with assistants, agents, schools, and a
manufacturing company. Madame Walker's daughter purchased a
townhouse in Harlem in 1913 and Madame Walker moved to New York in
1916. Before her death in 1919, Madame Walker could count over 2,000
agents selling an ever-expanding line of Walker products and demonstrating
the Walker System of treating hair.
A generous donor to black charities, Walker encouraged her agents to support black philanthropic work. She made the single
largest donation to the successful 1918 effort by the National Association of Colored Women to purchase the home of
Frederick Douglass so it could be preserved as a museum. She contributed generously to the National Association of Colored
People (NAACP), to homes for the aged in St. Louis and Indianapolis, to needy in Indianapolis (especially during Christmas
time), and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) of Indianapolis. She funded scholarships for young women at
Tuskegee Institute and contributed to Palmer Memorial Institute, a private secondary school for blacks in Sedalia, North
Caroline, founded by her close friend Charlotte Hawkins Brown. Beginning in 1913 Walker organized her agents into "Walker
Clubs," and gave cash prizes to the clubs that did the largest amount of community philanthropic work. At the annual convention
of Walker agents she always donated most to the most generous local affiliate. Walker made generous gifts to significant
educational institutions, such as Mary McLeod Bethune's Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls. She even
founded an academy for girls in West Africa and bequeathed $100,000 to it. She was highly regarded by Bethune, who
regarded Walker as a model for girls and women to emulate.
Walker required her agents to sign contracts specifying not only the exclusive use of her company's products and methods, but
binding them also to a hygienic regimen which anticipated the practices into state cosmetology laws. In frequent visits and
communications to her agents she preached "cleanliness and loveliness" as assets and aids to self-respect and racial advance.
An editorial of 1919 in Crisis (the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) judged that
Madame Walker had influenced in her lifetime a revolution of "personal habits and appearance of millions of human beings."
Madame Walker constantly made headlines, both with her business and her
social activities. Her personal possessions amounted to a value of a million
dollars and included extensive real estate holdings. In 1914 she moved to
New York and built a $90,000 Indiana limestone townhouse at 1088-110
West 136th Street . In its sitting rooms and dining halls, in the years
following Sarah Walker's death, her daughter, now Mrs. A'Lelia Walker
Robinson Wilson Kennedy, presided over a salon known as "The Dark
Tower", where talented Negro authors, musicians, and artists met influential
white intellectuals. A "Who's Who" of African American history entered her
doors. In attendance were publishers, critics, and potential patrons, who
helped to stimulate the "Harlem Renaissance" in the arts during the 1920's.
A'Lelia's crowning social event was the glamorous "Million Dollar Wedding"
(actually $40,000) of adopted daughter Mae Walker Perry at St. Phillips in
New York City. In 1917 Madame Walker built an Italianate
neo-Palladian-style country home designed by the first registered black
architect Vertner Woodson Tandy at Irvington-on-the-Hudson, New York.
The villa, a $250,000 mansion, was named by noted tenor Enrico Caruso, who combined the initial syllables of A'Lelia Walker
Robinson's name. The twenty room mansion was furnished at a price of nearly half a million dollars. Walker furnished it with a
24-carat gold-plated piano and phonograph, a $15,000 pipe organ that gently awoke house guests, Hepplewhite furniture,
Persian rugs, many huge oil paintings, and two Japanese prayer trees imported at a cost of over $10,000.
Warned by physicians at the Kellogg Clinic at Battle Creek, Michigan, that her hypertension required a reduction of her
activities, Madame Walker nevertheless continued her busy schedule. She became ill while in St. Louis and was moved back to
New York, where she died on May 25, 1919 of chronic interstitial nephritis, kidney failure and hypertension at the Villa
Lewaro estate. Despite her impoverished beginnings, Madame Walker achieved notable business success. Funeral services
were conducted at the villa by the pastor of her church, the Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of New
York, and she was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The estate went to A'Lelia Walker Robinson Wilson. In 1930,
in a "fit of temperament" the unpredictable A'Lelia closed the townhouse, auctioned its furnishings and died suddenly in 1931,
bequeathed the remaining estate to the NAACP. Most notable gift of Madame Walker was $10,000 cash and the Villa Lewaro
to the NAACP. Several generations of the Walker family continue the business she established.
Included in Madame C. J. Walker's will was a provison that the company
she founded alway to headed by women. "To make certain the gifts
continue, two-thirds of the company stock is owned by five Negro trustees
named by Madame Walker for the benefit of certain charities enunciated in
the will." The trustees of the estate are: Robert Lee
Brokenburr, Willard B.
Ransom, Violet D. Reynolds, Faburn E.
DeFrantz, and Marion R. Perry
(who is also the treasurer of the company). As provided by A'Lelia's will,
the remaining third is divided equally between
A'Lelia E. Ransom and A'Lelia Mae Perry (the great granddaughter of Madam Walker). The estate
went to A'Lelia Walker Robinson Wilson, who bequeathed the estate to the
NAACP following her death in 1931. To raise money for the organization
during the Depression period in the 1930's, the NAACP sold the Villa
Lewaro in 1932 to a fraternal organization, the Companions of the Forest in
America. In 1950 the building housed the Annie Potts Home for the Aged.
In 1976, Villa Lewaro was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, A' Lelia Perry Bundles, a producer for "ABC World News Tonight"
and great-great-granddaughter of Madame
C. J. Walker, is leading a
movement to safeguard the building for its establishment as a museum. Among the other properties left by the manufacturess is a
five-story million dollar plant in Indianapolis, The Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company Building. The block-square
building also houses a Greek-style theater, lunchroom, drugstore, beauty parlor, and private offices.
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