“There is no royal flower strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it, for whatever success I have attained has been the result of much hard work and many sleepless nights.”
Born on a cotton plantation in Louisiana in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker was the first self-made female millionaire in the early twentieth century, and she deserves credit.
Her parents, Owen and Minerva, were recently freed slaves. They named their fifth child, and the first of their children to be born free, Sarah Breedlove. She was made an orphan by the age of seven, and moved to Mississippi to live with her sister Louvinia, where she picked cotton and did household work.
To escape the abuse that she suffered at the hands of Louvinia’s husband and the oppressive working environment, Sarah married a man named Moses McWilliams at age fourteen. In 1885, they had a baby girl, named A’Leila, but Moses’s death when A’Leila turned two provoked the pair to move to St. Louis to live with Sarah’s brothers.
In St. Louis, Sarah worked as a washerwoman. She earned $1.50 a day, which was just enough to send A’Leila to a public school in the city. (My Italian grandmother was a washerwoman in Queens when she first came to the United States-- I wonder if that's how much she made, too.) Sarah herself attended night school, whenever there was any extra money. It was in St. Louis that she met her second husband, Charles J. Walker, who worked in advertising and would help Sarah promote her future business.
When Sarah was young, she experienced a scalp ailment that caused her to lose most of her hair. I can’t imagine having such an illness, especially in a time when femininity was considered important. But instead of wallowing, which is honestly what I would do, Sarah experimented with home hair remedies.
She was so successful in this that, in 1905, a successful, black hair care pioneer named Annie Turnbo Malone hired her as a commission agent (Malone later became her greatest competitor). It was during this time that she perfected her own African American hair care treatments.
Her husband Charles helped her brand her treatments, and encouraged her to take on the name Madam C.J. Walker. Am I the only person mildly annoyed by that? For one thing, the name Sarah Breedlove is absolutely beautiful. And another thing, though Charles certainly helped her with her business, she was the true innovator, the brave woman behind the business who endured so much tragedy and misfortune. As far as I’m concerned, that means that her name should be attached to the success of the line. It's true that this was the tradition of the time, but it still doesn’t make it right.
Nevertheless, it is Sarah who is credited with all of her success, partially due to how she handled her business. In other words, she was smart. She was not only a hair care innovator, but an entrepreneurial, marketing innovator. In 1907, she and her husband traveled around the South and Southeast promoting her products and giving demonstrations of the “Walker Method,” a process involve her own pomade recipe, a certain pattern of brushing, and the use of heated combs.
Not only did she prosper enormously in this, but she also used her success to give back. In 1908, she opened a factory as well as a beauty school in Pittsburgh. When the company, now known as Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, grew too large for the original factory, she had to move to Indianapolis, where she not only manufactured cosmetics but trained sales beauticians called “Walker Agents.”
The Walker Agents promoted Walker’s philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness” throughout the black communities of the United States. In turn, Walker organized clubs and conventions for her representatives, during which she praised her truly great sales team and organized philanthropic and educational efforts for African American communities.
Sarah and Charles divorced in 1913, after which she traveled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to spread her products and training techniques. During this time, A’Leila acquired property in Harlem for the business, recognizing the location as potentially culturally significant. And her instinct was correct. When Sarah returned from her trips, she moved into a townhouse in Harlem and became a fixture of the social and political culture there.
While in Harlem, Sarah founded philanthropies that included educational scholarships, donations to retirement homes, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Conference on Lynching, and other organizations dedicated to supporting and advancing the lives of black Americans.
In 1919, at age fifty-one, she died of hypertension in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, in an estate home that she had built for herself. At the time of her death, she was the sole proprietor of her business, which was valued at over one million dollars, and her personal fortune was just shy of that number. She left a third of her estate to A’Leila, who became a celebrated member of the Harlem Renaissance.
Madam C.J. Walker didn’t bear her tough childhood thinking that tragedy and poverty were all she could look forward to. She survived it with inexhaustible hope and a staunch rejection of passivity. In an era in which good personal hygiene was not the norm because of a lack of indoor plumbing and electricity, she saw a hole in the world that needed to be filled. She recognized her position as a role model, as an idol, and used that to be there for her community, involving herself heavily in the culture and politics of her time.
In an article written by A’Leila herself, a few secrets to her mother’s success are revealed. There is one quote in particular that truly resonated with me, as a millennial in a time when no one sees or understands their own efficacy: “I got my start by giving myself a start!”