Keep Hope Alive: Madam C. J. Walker
As part of our efforts to Keep Hope Alive, we want to pay respect to the people we write about and for those who find hope in their examples, we want to provide more context on their lives and achievements. So, starting today, we will be hosting full length articles about the inspirational figures we present on Instagram here in the “Breaking Bounds” section of the HONOR-BOUND blog.
Our first inspirational figure is none other than Madam C.J. Walker; a noted philanthropist and the United States first female millionaire.
Madam C.J. Walker, originally named Sarah Breedlove, was born on December 23, 1867. Though she was the fifth child to Minerva and Owen Breedlove, Sarah was the first to be born a free citizen of the United States. She lived with her family on a plantation in Louisiana until 1874. At the age of seven, Sarah lost her mother. Her father died the year after.
As an orphan, Sarah moved in with her sister, Louvinia and her husband. Three years later, they relocated to Vicksburg, Mississippi where Sarah found her fist job on a plantation, picking cotton and completing housework. At work, Sarah struggled through long, blistering hours in the fields and house. She suffered oppression and humiliation. At home, she survived the abuse of her increasingly violent bother-in-law.
Sarah endured seven years of mistreatment and domestic abuse until she married Moses McWilliams at the age of 14. A year later, Sarah gave birth to their daughter, A’lelia McWilliams. Unfortunately, Moses passed away only two years later. Now a single mother, Sarah made the decision to move with her child to St. Louis, Missouri where her brothers had become established barbers.
In 1888, Sarah moved with her daughter to St. Louis and found work at a laundromat, where she made only $1.50 per day. Sarah used this money to put young Alelia through public school, and to attend night classes for herself whenever she was able. During this time, Sarah was plagued by a series of scalp ailments that were severe enough to cause hair loss. After consulting with her brothers, Sarah began experimenting with various treatments in pursuit of a remedy. Eventually, she found a combination of products and treatments that yielded success.
In 1905, Sarah gained employment as a cosmetics sales representative for Anni Turnbo Malone, a successful producer of hair care treatments for African Americans. Sarah combined her knowledge of hair care with that of Malone to begin developing her own line of products centered around her experiences with the scalp ailments she had suffered; experiences she had in common with many women of the early 1900’s. Later that year, Sarah moved A’lelia and herself to Colorado where Sarah continued selling products for Malone while she developed her own line.
One year later, Sarah married an ad salesman named Charles J. Walker. Charles quickly became Sarah’s biggest advocate and partner. Together they rolled out Sarah’s first line of treatments and cosmetics, and quickly began to promote and sell her products. Over the course of their early promotions, Charles convinced Sarah to begin identifying herself as Madam C.J. Walker to adopt a commercially recognizable name.
As Madam Walker’s door-to-door sales rose, she embarked on a series of tours to continue the growth of her name and company. Her daughter, A’lelia was put in charge of the operations of the business in Denver, while Madam Walker travelled with her husband throughout the South. With each new town she visited, Madam C. J. Walker would conduct demonstrations for larger and larger crowds.
In 1908, Madam Walker’s business had grown so much, she was able to open a new office and beauty salon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There she established the Lelia College to train women in the Madam C. J. Walker College of Beauty Culture. That year, A’lelia closed their business operations in Denver, Colorado and joined her mother in Pittsburgh to oversee the office, salon, and school.
Two years later, Madam Walker continued to capitalize on her success by moving with her husband once again and setting a new base of operations and a factory for her Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis, Indiana. As her business continued to grow, Madam Walker built a second factory, hair salon, and another beautician school to train new employees. She also, built a laboratory to begin research into new formulas for her products. And, in 1913, she opened another office and salon in Harlem, New York. As the branches of the business were established, Madam Walker required a top managerial force to ensure the wellbeing of her company. So, she employed dozens of women trained in every aspect of the business.
As Madam Walker’s business and profits continued to grow, she became an active member of political and philanthropic societies. She contributed both time and money to dozens of charities, organizations, and scholarships, and even went so far as to include it in her living-will that two thirds of her company’s future profits should be distributed amongst charities. The list includes the National Negro Business League, the YMCA, Bethune-Cookman University, the Palmer Memorial Institute, the NAACP, the National Convention on Lynching, and so many more.
On May 25, 1919 Madam C. J. Walker passed away at the age of 52. She is remembered a philanthropist, a patron of the arts, and a self-made millionaire. She was, in fact, the first female self-made millionaire in the United States. Though that is a major accomplishment in itself, the true weight of her legacy is in the opportunities she provided to tens-of-thousands of people over the course of her career, and her well-earned reputation as a, brave, strong, and determined woman. Madam C. J. Walker is truly an inspiration, and her life was spent Keeping Hope Alive for so many. Our society will always owe her a debt of gratitude for the positivity and progress she brought to us throughout her life.