Madam C. J. Walker
Background and Early Years
Madam C. J. Walker was born on December 23, 1867 a Black philanthropist and business tycoon who made her fortune developing and marketing a hugely successful line of beauty and hair care products for Black women. Born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, La., she was the eldest child and was first to be born free. Walker was raised on farms there and in Mississippi growing up, and became the nation’s first female self-made millionaire.
Walker picked cotton on a plantation as a child. She was an orphan at the age of seven, married at age 14 to a man named Moses McWilliams, and was widowed at 20. She moved to St. Louis to join her brothers after. Sarah worked as a laundress for as little as $1.50 a day, but she was able to save enough to educate her daughter, A’leila. While living in St. Louis, Walker joined St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopal Church, which helped develop her speaking, interpersonal and organizational skills.
Walker became interested in a hair care products while trying to treat a scalp ailment that left her temporarily bald. In 1905, she moved to Denver to work as a hair tonic sales agent for Annie Malone, another Black woman entrepreneur. She married her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, an employee for the St. Louis newspaper, changed her name to "Madam" C.J. Walker. She founded the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company to sell hair care products and cosmetics. In 1910, she moved her growing manufacturing operation to a new industrial complex in Indianapolis, and by 1917, it was the largest Black business in the United States.
Madam C. J. Walker said of herself: “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.”
Walker saw her personal wealth as not an end in itself, but a means to help promote and expand economic opportunities for others, especially Blacks. She took great pride in the profitable employment and alternative to domestic labor that her company afforded many thousands of Black women. Her employees worked as commissioned agents and could earn from $5 to $15 a day, in an era when unskilled White laborers were only making about $11 a week. One of her employees, Marjorie Joyner, began under Walker’s influence, and she went on the lead the next generation of Black beauty entrepreneurs.
Walker was also known for her philanthropy; she left two-thirds of her estate to educational institutions and charities including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 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's daughter, A'lelia, carried on this tradition, opening her mother's home and her own to writers and artists of the emergent Harlem Renaissance, and she promoted important members of that movement. A’leila converted a section of her Harlem townhouse into “The Dark Tower,” a salon and tearoom where Harlem and Greenwich Village artists, writers and musicians gathered. Poet Langston Hughes called A’leila "the joy goddess of Harlem's 1920s" in his autobiography because of the lavish parties A’leila hosted.
Walker had a mansion called, Villa Lewaro, built in the wealthy New York suburb of Irvington on Hudson, near the estates of John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould, and she spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on furnishings. The Italian-style villa was designed by architect Vertner Tandy, the first registered Black architect in the state of New York in 1915. She also owned townhouses in Indianapolis and New York.
Walker died on May 31, 1919.
Sources: Wikipedia.com; brilliantdreams.com; Henry Louis Gates Jr., "Madam's Crusade," Time, December 7,1998; Portraits of Philanthropy. Slate; Robert Abbott, "Madam C.J. Walker–Beauty Culturist Dies," Chicago Defender, May 31, 1919; Gray, Christopher, “Streetscapes/The Walker Town House; The Grand Mansion of an Early Black Entrepreneur.” The New York Times, April 24, 1994.
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Tuesday, December 11th 2007 at 4:30PM
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