In a poverty-stricken neighborhood of early twentieth century St. Louis, a hardworking black washer-woman in her early thirties encountered an embarrassing and then-intractable problem: her hair was falling out. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to parents who had recently been freed from slavery, raised by her sister and cruel brother-in-law, married at the age of fourteen and widowed a few years later with a two-year-old daughter in tow, the woman who would come to be known as Madam C. J. Walker rejected self-pity and set out to do something about it.
Within just a half dozen years, Walker would become a hugely successful businesswoman and a self-made model of achievement. When she died at the age of 51, Walker was widely recognized as the wealthiest black woman in the United States and lauded as the nation’s first woman to become a self-made millionaire. The latter claim was not accurate, though her $600,000 estate translates into about $8 million in today’s currency and she was just about to reach millionaire status at the time of her untimely death.
Walker had moved to St. Louis in 1888. Her three brothers who lived there were successful barbers, their clientele largely white. Active at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, which had a strong community of middle-class women who mentored her and inspired her ambition to learn to read and advance in the world, and with the example of her brothers as successful businessmen, Sarah began to take a serious interest in hair care, especially concerned about the particular needs of black women.
She discussed hair care with her brothers, benefiting from their expertise, and went to work as a sales person for black American hair-care entrepreneur and business owner Annie Tumbo Malone. While working for Malone, Sarah explored possible product lines of her own. With ill health, bad diet, poor hygiene habits, and use of harsh soaps and straightening treatments common among black women at that time, there was a great need for innovation in hair treatments.
First came inspiration, then perspiration, and then more inspiration. According to A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great granddaughter, writing in On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, Sarah had a dream in which “a big black man” told her to mix together several ingredients, some of them from Africa, and apply them to her scalp. She proceeded to do so, and “In a few weeks, my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out,” Bundles quotes her as saying.
Employing this anecdote as the basis for a marketing campaign to appeal to black women, Sarah set out to develop her own product line and set up her own business while still working for Malone. She married Charles Walker, a newspaper ad salesman, and they moved to Denver, then Pittsburgh, and finally Indianapolis, also eventually opening an office and salon in Harlem in New York City. Her husband served as her business partner and helped with advertising and promotion efforts.
Benefiting from the mentorship and knowledge of her brothers, husband, and fellow churchgoers, Madam C. J. Walker, as she now called herself, applied an innovative marketing approach to sell her new products: teaching black women how to take care of their hair, with Walker’s products as the means of doing so. Initially, this took the form of Mrs. Walker going door-to-door to meet with women and personally guide them through the hair-care process. As the business grew, Walker established Lelia College to train what she called hair culturists, and she later opened a beauty school and research laboratory to spread knowledge of the Walker System. In the 1910s, Walker’s firm had several thousand sales agents, all wearing distinctive uniforms and offering products with packaging carrying Walker’s image.
Walker’s use of education and mentoring to help women take care of their hair brought great success and inspired competitors. Walker encouraged other black women to start businesses, including her own beauty culturists, and she gave generously to charities and encouraged others to do so as well. Her philanthropic efforts consistently encouraged black Americans to become achievers and fought against lynching and other forms of discrimination and oppression. In the latter efforts, she reflected the concerns of black intellectual W. E. B. DuBois, and in her emphasis on hard work and self-reliance, she epitomized the philosophy of black educator Booker T. Washington. She knew both men and supported their efforts.
Walker’s charitable activities show a wise integration of these two strands of thinking about how best to empower black Americans: Washington was quite correct to point out that black Americans, like everybody else, could succeed only if they made themselves and their work valuable to others, but DuBois rightly asserted that hard work and dedication are worth little if government fails to protect people’s rights to life, liberty, and property or, even worse, overrules those rights itself.
It’s fair to say, however, that Walker’s story leans heavily on the side of self-reliance and hard work. She emphasized those virtues in both her work and her charitable and educational endeavors, and she had much success selling her products in the then-segregated South. As Booker T. Washington counseled, Walker “cast down her bucket where she was” and sought success by greatly transcending the supposed limits of her conditions, using the available support systems and positive cultural values to guide her work and life. It’s a lesson for people of all nations and all ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds.