Madam C.J. Walker
by Ariel Seidman-Wright
On August 23rd, 1912, Madam C.J. Walker stood up in the crowd at the Thirteenth Annual Convention of the National Negro Business League and exclaimed, “Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face.” After being ignored time and again by their leader Booker T. Washington, Walker decided that she would not wait for permission to speak. In an environment steeped in sexist and elitist attitudes, many held disdain for Walker and her beauty business. Nevertheless, she presented her achievements in a straightforward, candid way, and won over the audience as she recounted her journey to success and her ambitions to empower and educate the people of her race. A shrewd businesswoman,
Walker was well aware that money talks, so she laid out her concrete financial achievements early on, and the figures she shared silenced any critics. Walker’s thorough knowledge of her company’s accounting challenged the widely held perception that women were not capable of thriving in the business world. Not only was Walker a woman, she was a divorced, African American single mother with little formal education, who owned a property valued at ten thousand dollars, her own factory, and an automobile.
Madam C.J. Walker
Madam CJ Walker behind the wheel in Indianapolis, 1911.
In 1912, Madam C.J. Walker was living the “American Dream” at a time when that was a slim possibility for most women, Black or White. Walker was the wealthiest Black woman in America and the first self-made American woman millionaire, but took great pride in her meagre beginnings. She had promoted herself from the cotton fields of the South to the laundry wash-tub, from there to the cook kitchen, and eventually to her business of manufacturing hair treatments. She often emphasized that she, a poor, uneducated woman, was capable of taking matters into her own hands and creating her own enterprise. Shame and apology were always absent from Walker’s description of her rise from the lowest rung of society. She was not embarrassed to describe her past: she knew the desperation of poverty and thus understood perfectly the women she championed.
Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23rd, 1867 near Delta, Louisiana to sharecroppers Owen and Minerva Breedlove, Walker had five siblings, and was the first one born free. By age 7, Walker was an orphan, and lived with relatives until she married her first husband Moses McWilliams in 1882. In 1885, she gave birth to daughter A’Lelia, who would eventually grow up to help run the family beauty empire. Widowed in 1887, Walker re-married twice; first in 1894 to John Davis whom she left in 1903, and then in 1906 to Charles Joseph Walker, when she became known as Madam C.J. Walker. They were business partners, and Charles worked on advertising and publicity for the company. They divorced in 1912. From 1888 to 1910, Madam C.J. relocated many times from St. Louis to Denver to Pittsburgh, and eventually settled in Indianapolis where she built the headquarters of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, as well as a factory, salon, vocational school, and laboratory. At the encouragement of her daughter A’Lelia, Walker also opened an office and salon in Harlem, New York in 1913. A few years later, Madam C.J. joined A’Lelia in New York, and hired the first licensed Black architect in New York City, Vertner Tandy, to build her mansion, Villa Lewaro in Irvington, NY.
Walker was very passionate about uplifting Black women through her business, and she aimed to do this with both beauty products and opportunities to achieve economic independence. She knew from first-hand experience that the employment prospects for Black women in the twentieth century were bleak, and the vast majority of them suffered intense exploitation. Popular propaganda of the time defined women as a function of their roles in the home, and therefore vulnerable to abuse in the workplace, since they had dared to step out of their “natural sphere.” Walker challenged these notions by re-defining the public image of a working mother, and offering Black women financial independence through a career in the African American beauty industry. Women who gained training and employment from the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company made three to four times more than they could have as maids, and achieved a level of autonomy and respectability that they could not have aspired to as domestic workers. In the decade before Madam C.J. Walker opened her manufacturing company, ninety-one percent of Black women workers were employed as domestics. By 1916, the Walker Company had twenty thousand agents, most of whom were Black women.
The Walker Manufacturing Company, Indianapolis
A tin for Madame C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower
In addition to helping Black women gain employment and education, Madam C.J. Walker firmly believed that her brand was working to glorify the womanhood of her race. She deeply resented having her products misconstrued as tools to undermine African American traits, and sought to enhance African American beauty rather than erase it. Quite a bit of
promotional material for the Madam C.J. Walker
Manufacturing Company stressed the importance
of African Americans exclusively using products
designed for them by people of their own race.
While this argument aligned itself with a
business interest for the company, this was
also an era where there were no regulations
for the standards of cosmetics, and a number
of the products marketed to African Americans
were extremely dangerous. This was a consumer
climate that boasted such products as “Black-No-More,”
a toxic mixture of bi-chloride of mercury tincture and benzoin, which claimed to “transform the blackest skin into the purest white without pain, inconvenience or danger,” but in fact caused severe skin damage. A tireless defender of her work, Walker understood that, as leading theorist Melissa Harris-Perry writes: “It is an act of resistance for a black woman to demand that her body belong to herself for her pleasure, her adornment, even her vanity, because in the United States, black women’s bodies have often been valued only to the extent that they produce wealth and pleasure for others.”
Walker promoted racial uplift and early feminist values through every branch of her empire, and was determined that the agents of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company be leaders in political activism. Indignant over the segregationist policies of the War Department during World War I, Walker led a delegation of women to the White House to confront President Wilson, who they found unwilling to acknowledge the hypocrisy of asking Black men to fight for democracy in Europe when they couldn’t be protected from lynching on home soil. Undaunted by Wilson’s rebuff, Walker continued to organize, protest, and contribute to a broad range of activism and philanthropy. She created scholarships at a number of educational institutions and was involved with community organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Before her death in 1919, Walker gave $5000 to the NAACP anti-lynching fund (about $77,000 today) which, at the time, was the largest gift ever donated from an individual.
Madam CJ Walker with Booker T. Washington and others at the Senate YMCA, 1913.
Madam C.J. Walker
Archival photos of Villa Lewaro filled with guests, 1924
Madam C.J. Walker is the epitome of a woman you should know about. A Black single mother from a humble background, time and time again, she refused to adhere to the restrictions of a sexist and classist society. She was a tireless advocate for the rights of Black women, and her bold pronouncements were supported by action and results. She helped tens of thousands of Black women escape the limitations of domestic work and propelled them into the centre of the discourse on race and business, where women had often been sidelined. Madam C.J. Walker challenged the status
quo, revolutionized the entrepreneurial landscape in America, and kicked the door open for Black women to step onto the political scene. She was tough and resilient, having endured intense struggle and abuse throughout her life; ultimately it was kidney failure and complications from hypertension that killed her at age 51 on May 25th, 1919. Upon Walker’s death, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: “It is given to few persons to transform a people in a generation. Yet this was done by the late Madam Walker.”