Looking for inspiration to follow your dreams? Then look no further than Madam C.J. Walker, millionaire, philanthropist and activist.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was an era of horrific racism in the United States. The majority of African Americans lived in the rural South and were economically exploited by white property owners and subjected to violence from white vigilantes.
It was against this backdrop of poverty and subjugation that Madam C.J. Walker was born (birth name Sarah Breedlove). She came into the world in a one-room cabin on a Louisiana cotton plantation where her parents labored as sharecroppers.
Orphaned at seven, married at fourteen and widowed by twenty, Walker survived the next two decades working as a washerwoman for $1.50 a week.
Then everything changed.
Through trial and error, this remarkable African American woman discovered a revolutionary haircare formula for African American women. From this, she built an international haircare empire which would be run by four generations of Walker women.
Just one generation out of slavery and at a time when Jim Crow laws ruled, Madam Walker became the first female African American self-made millionaire in America.
Needless to say, Walker was a source of great pride to African Americans. But while she enjoyed her wealth and success, she believed her higher calling in life was to advocate for the advancement of other African Americans. Especially the women.
Her innovative business model included both mail-order sales and door-to-door sales. The door-to-door sales were conducted by African American sales women called Walker Agents. More than just sell products, these women were trained to offer a wide range of salon services such as scalp treatments, hair stylings, manicures, facials and massages.
Thanks to Madam Walker, women who otherwise would have labored as maids, cooks and laundresses were able to achieve independence and financial success .
Walker Agents were able to make more in one week than they could otherwise make in a month. In 1913, there were 25,000 active sales agents throughout the U.S. Ultimately, Walker employed 40,000 African American women and men in the US, Central America and the Caribbean. To add to her long list of accomplishments, Walker somehow found the time to found the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association.
As Madam Walker’s wealth increased, so did her philanthropic and political outreach.
Walker was renowned for more than her business acumen. She contributed large amounts of her fortune to such African American organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the African American WMCA. Additionally, she paid tuition for African American students at Tuskegee, a private, historically African American university. And, in 1917, she helped organize a protest after white rioters massacred dozens of innocent African Americans. That same year, she went to the White House to urge President Wilson to make lynching a federal crime.
In 1910, Walker relocated the headquarters of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company from Pittsburg to Indianapolis where she built “a city within a city” where some 3,000 African American women found gainful employment. Located in the vibrant Indiana Avenue corridor, it became a thriving community hub featuring a theater, a ballroom, a restaurant, a drugstore, a beauty salon, a beauty school and medical offices. The building, featuring terra cotta architectural detailing and unique African arts motifs, is listed as a National Historic Landmark.
More than one hundred years after her death, Madam C.J. Walker’s legacy of empowering African American women lives on.
Because of the independent income and investments Walker agents were able to make, they had the means to create better lives for themselves, their children and future generations to come. In 2016 the Walker Legacy established the Walker’s Legacy Foundation which exists solely to continue Madam Walker’s mission of helping multicultural women and girls around the world achieve economic equality.
“I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavor to provide employment to hundreds of women of my race.”MADAM C. J. WALKER
Want to learn more about the fascinating Madam Walker? Tune into the Netflix mini-series starring the Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer.