Madam C.J. Walker was a civil rights activist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. Walker is often mentioned because of her entrepreneurship and she is often cited as the first African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire. But her generosity and philanthropic work interest me even more.
The Life of Madam Walker
By 1915, Madam Walker became the wealthiest black woman in the nation. But she came from meager beginnings.
Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on a cotton plantation near Delta, Mississippi, on December 23, 1867. She was the first free-born and fifth overall child of Owen and Minerva Breedlove, two former slaves.
Young Sarah Breedlove was orphaned at age 7, after her parents died in two successive years. She went to live with her sister, Louvinia, and brother-in-law. The three eventually moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1877.
While in Vicksburg, young Sarah Breedlove picked cotton. She and her sister also worked as maids (Bundles). The work environment was oppressive and the girl suffered consistent mistreatment by her brother-in-law (Biography).
When she was 14 years old, Sarah married a man named Moses McWilliams. On June 6, 1885, she gave birth to their daughter, A’Lelia. McWilliams died 2 years later.
After her husband’s death, Breedlove and her daughter moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where her brothers ran a barbershop. Breedlove worked as a washerwoman, earning $1.50 a day (Biography).
While in St. Louis, Breedlove eventually met the man who would become her second husband. She and John Davis wed in 1894. They were only married for nine years (White).
In the 1890’s, Breedlove developed a scalp condition that caused her to lose much of her hair. Breedlove’s hair fell out due to stress, poor diet, and poor hygiene. She experimented with home remedies and hair-care products to treat her condition.
In 1905, Annie Turnbo Malone, who was herself a successful black hair-care product entrepreneur, hired Breedlove as a commission agent. The work took Breedlove and her daughter to Denver, CO. (After Breedlove developed her own business, Annie Turbo became Breedlove’s “fiercest competitor.”)
While in Colorado, Breedlove continued her work on a hair-care treatment for black consumers. She consulted a Denver pharmacist in order to finally produce her curative shampoos and ointments (Bundles).
Breedlove married her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, in Denver. He was a newspaper sales agent (White). While the two were married, he would help his wife promote her hair-care products. But first, Charles Walker encouraged his wife to make an advertisement to promote her ointment and to use the name “Madam C.J. Walker” to gain recognition (Biography).
Madam Walker displayed her image on her products in order to appeal to her market of African-American Women. She advertised in black newspapers. The advertisements employed the “Before and After” photographs that are common in advertisements today (Bundles).
Building Her Company
By 1907, Walker and her husband traveled to the Southern and southeaster regions of the United States to promote her product and to give lectures about the “Walker Method.” The Walker Method involved the use of her homemade pomade, brushes, and heated combs.
In 1908, Walker opened up a factory and beauty school in Pittsburgh, PA. In 1910, Walker moved her base of operations to Indianapolis. The Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company made profits that would equal several million dollars in today’s money.
In 1913 (a year after divorcing Charles Walker), Madame C.J. Walker traveled to Latin America and the Caribbean. While there, Walker promoted her business and recruited others to teach her hair-care methods. Meanwhile, Walker’s daughter looked to procure some property in Harlem, New York. That property would serve as another base of operations.
Walker moved into her new townhouse in 1916 once returning from her travels. Walker worked from home and left day-to-day operations of the Indianapolis factory to the forelady (Biography).
At its height, Madam Walker’s business employed over 3,000. Most of her workers were door-to-door saleswomen. She offered nearly twenty hair and skin products (History.com).
The Legacy of Madam C.J. Walker
At the time of her death, Walker, her business was valued at more than $1 million. She had a personal fortune that was estimated to be between $600k-$700k. A third of her estate was left to her daughter and the rest went to charities (Biography). But during her life, she dedicated her time and money to promoting black culture and giving other people opportunities.
Giving Opportunities to Other Black Women
Through her business, Madam C.J. Walker wanted to serve black women with her product and within her company. During the early 1900’s, black women were mostly relegated to working in others’ homes and on farms.
Quote from 1914 (Via A’Lelia Bundles1):
I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.
The charter of Walker’s company stated that only a woman could serve as the company’s president. Most of Madam C.J. Walker’s employees and key executives were women. By empowering other women, Madam C.J. Walker allowed those women to support their families and to think about donating to worthy causes.
Freeman B. Ransom, a black man, was Madam Walker’s only key male employee. He served as her attorney and business manager.
Walker also wanted to get others to pay it forward.
She hosted the first national convention of the Madam Walker Beauty Culturists League in Philadelphia, PA in 1917. At the convention, over 200 women participated in one of the first conventions for women entrepreneurs. Walker gave prizes to the agents who sold the most products and those who gave the most to charity. After the convention, the women were inspired to speak out against the East St. Louis Riots and to write President Woodrow Wilson to make lynching a federal crime.
Maintaining the Spirit of Giving Throughout Her Life and Beyond
Madam Walker gave a few pennies to her church’s missionary society when she was a washerwoman.
In 1910, she pledged $1,000 toward the building fund of the black YMCA in Indianapolis. The YMCA that opened in Indianapolis in 1913 was on Senate Avenue.
As her business took off, Madam Walker assisted young musicians and artists. She provided scholarships for students at schools, which included Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and Mary McLeod Bethune’s Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Girls.
After her death, Madam C.J. Walker’s money went to educational institutions and political causes. She also instructed that her final home be of use after her and her daughter’s deaths (Willis).
Promoting National Causes
During World War I, the federal government enlisted her to encourage other black Americans to support the war effort by buying war bonds. At the risk of being put on the “Negro subversives” list, Walker worked to encourage support for black soldiers, who faced discrimination. Additionally, Madam Walker and her daughter set up a fundraising campaign to purchase an ambulance for black soldiers fighting in World War I.
In May 1919, shortly before her death, Madam Walker made what was the largest individual donation ($5,000) to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund.
Promoting Black Culture
Madam Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia, managed the family’s Denver and Pittsburgh offices from 1906-1913. It was A’Lelia who convinced her mother to open up another office in Harlem because it that was the site of a developing renaissance for black Americans.
A’Lelia was at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance and parties at the “The Dark Tower” — a converted floor of their 136th Street townhouse — attracted black artists, musicians, writers, and influencers. Langston Hughes praised A’Lelia, whom he called “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920’s.”
Walker began work on a cultural center before her death. The Madam Walker Theatre Center opened in December 1927. It contained an African Art Deco theater, a beauty school, hair salon, restaurant, ballroom, drug store, and manufacturing facility (Bundles).
The Walker Building, is now a National Historical Landmark. The building served as an important cultural center for black Americans for many decades.
As I was doing the research on Walker, I discovered that her last home was being put for sale. It is also designated as a National Historical Landmark.
Walker hired Vertner Woodson Tandy to design her Irvington-on-Hudson mansion. Tandy was New York’s first licensed black architect.
The mansion was built in 1917 and designed by That plans for the mansion included three stories, 20,000 square feet, high ceilings, a marble floor, and a $25,000 Etsey organ. The home cost $250,000 to build.
The home had 34 rooms. It was named Villa Lewaro by Italian tenor Enrico Caruso.It opened in August 1918, when Madam Walker hosted civil rights leaders and invited top black musicians of the time.
After Walker died from hypertension in 1919, her daughter inherited the property but she only used it for weekend properties. Walker’s will stated the home should go to the NAACP after A’Lelia’s death, but it was too expensive for the organization. The mansion was sold in 1932.
It later became a retirement home for 40 years. But it was not maintained well at all. It became dilapidated and animals were living in the walls. The original furniture had already been auctioned off by A’Lelia during the Great Depression.
Helena and Harold Doley bought Madam C.J. Walker’s mansion in 1993. They are now putting the home up for sale. There are some historians who hope that the mansion will be open to the public (Willis).
Madam C.J. Walker was a pioneer for African American women and women in general. She had a specific focus, drive, and flair about her. But most importantly, she devoted her life to promoting causes important to her, including arts, culture, and justice.
This isn’t the last planned post for Black History Month. There’s one day left and I plan to take a look at Sojourner Truth.
- A’Lelia Bundles is Madam C.J. Walker’s great-great granddaughter. She wrote On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker (2001).
Biography.com Editors. “Madam C.J. Walker Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Television Networks. Last Updated 17 Mar 2015. Web. Retrieved 27 Feb 2017. <http://www.biography.com/people/madam-cj-walker-9522174>.
Bundles, A’Lelia. “Madam C.J. Walker’s Secrets to Success.” Biography. 24 Feb 2015. Web. <http://www.biography.com/news/madam-cj-walker-biography-facts>.
History.com Staff. “Madam C.J. Walker.” History.com. A+E Networks; 2009. Web. Retrieved 27 Feb 2017. <http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker>.
White, Claytee D. “Walker, Madam C. J. (Sarah Breedlove), 1867–1919.” BlackPast.org. Web. Retrieved 27 Feb 2017. <http://www.blackpast.org/aah/walker-madam-c-j-1867-1919>.
Willis, Kiersten. “Madam C.J. Walker’s NY Mansion Up for Sale, Sellers Hope Black Community Can Somehow Benefit.” Atlanta Black Star. 24 Feb 2017. Web. <http://atlantablackstar.com/2017/02/24/madam-c-j-walkers-ny-mansion-sale-sellers-hope-black-community-can-somehow-benefit/>.