Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights
By Kathryn S. Gardiner
Madam C.J. Walker, Self-made Millionaire
In July 1917, a riot erupted in East Saint Louis. White workers responded with violence as factories in the area, especially those with government contracts, hired more and more black laborers. History has recorded the event as one of the worst race riots ever in the United States. White men fired weapons on homes in black neighborhoods, beating and lynching all black individuals they came across. The aggression of the white community resulted in over 40 deaths and nearly 6,000 families driven from their houses.
Responses from African-American leaders and organizations were swift and public. Among them was a gathering of Harlem business leaders, including Madam C.J. Walker, the influential owner of The Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company and believed to be the wealthiest African-American woman in the United States.
Like many women of the era, Sarah suffered from dandruff and hair loss caused by the harsh lye-based soaps used in cleaning clothes and hair.
Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on Dec. 23, 1867 to Owen and Minerva Breedlove in Louisiana. She was one of six children and the first born after the Emancipation Proclamation granted freedom to enslaved people in the country. By the age of seven, Sarah was an orphan and living with a sister and her husband. Sarah married Moses McWilliam in 1882 at age 14. The marriage was likely a means to escape abuse at the hands of her brother-in-law. With Moses, Sarah gave birth to her only child, a daughter the couple named A’Lelia. Moses died just two years later. Sarah remarried in 1894 but left that husband a few years later.
Both with and between husbands, Sarah was never idle. She and her daughter relocated to St. Louis, Mo., where three of her brothers had settled. Sarah earned a living as a laundress and a cook, making barely a dollar a day. She was determined, however, to earn enough to fund her daughter’s formal education. (She herself had only three months of Sunday school literacy lessons.) A single woman, she sang with the choir at the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church and enjoyed the company of a community of women.
It was within this company that the seed for Sarah’s business would take root. Like many women of the era, Sarah suffered from dandruff and hair loss caused by the harsh lye-based soaps used in cleaning clothes and hair. Most Americans also did not have adequate plumbing, further contributing to health and hygiene issues. Sarah’s brothers worked as barbers and she first studied haircare with them.
In 1904, Sarah attended the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (also known as the World’s Fair) as a commission agent for Annie Malone, an African-American entrepreneur who had founded the Poro Company, distributing haircare products. Malone would become Sarah’s mentor and eventually her primary business rival. Sarah and A’Lelia moved to Denver, Co., in 1905 where Sarah began developing her own hair care products in earnest.
Walker ensured that African-American women were trained in the “Walker System” of hair care and encouraged to become sales agents. Her saleswomen earned a considerable commission and she employed women at all levels of management.
In January of 1906, Sarah married Charles Joseph Walker, who worked in newspaper advertising in St. Louis. It was from this union that Sarah claimed the name Madam C.J. Walker, adopting the “Madam” from the women who pioneered the French cosmetics industry. She began working as an independent hairdresser and cosmetics retailer. Husband Charles was a partner in the business and helped with the marketing while daughter A’Lelia, now in her early 20s, ran the mail-order operation. When A’Lelia and her husband moved to Pittsburgh, a branch of the Madam C.J. Walker operations relocated with her.
Walker’s company would soon cross the country. In addition to its facilities in Pittsburgh, Walker also established a salon in Harlem, which would go on to become a center of black culture. Wherever her company took root, Walker ensured that African-American women were trained in the “Walker System” of hair care and encouraged to become sales agents. Her saleswomen earned a considerable commission and she employed women at all levels of management. Each sales agent wore a distinctive uniform of a white shirt and a black skirt, carrying with her a black satchel as she visited homes all throughout the United States and the Caribbean.
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South,” she said, speaking in 1912 at the National Negro Business League. “… I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
In 1910, Sarah and husband Charles moved to Indianapolis, Ind., where A’Lelia encouraged her mother to establish a factory head. Walker did so, purchasing a home and a factory at 640 North West Street. She and Charles divorced in 1913, but Sarah retained the name Madam C.J. Walker. After all, it was a brand now. Her name and likeness graced the packages of Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. Walker was savvy in advertising and branding, and she traveled frequently to promote her products.
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South,” she said, speaking in 1912 at an annual gathering of the National Negro Business League. “From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.” The following year she would attend the event as keynote speaker.
By 1917—the year of the horrific riots in East St. Louis—her company had several thousand sales agents and would claim to have trained 20,000 women in the “Walker System.” Harlem business leaders responded to the violence with a visit to the White House, brandishing a petition in support of anti-lynching legislation. Walker also served on the committee that organized the Negro Silent Protest Parade that walked through New York City streets.
“This is the greatest country under the sun,” she said to her agents, “but we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty, cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice.
“We should protest until the American sense of justice is so aroused that such affairs of the East St. Louis riots be forever impossible.”
Walker addressed the violence later that year at a gathering of the Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America in Philadelphia, a gathering which may have been the first national meeting of businesswomen. “This is the greatest country under the sun,” she said to her agents, “but we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty, cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice. We should protest until the American sense of justice is so aroused that such affairs of the East St. Louis riots be forever impossible.”
As her business grew, so did Walker’s activism. Just in Indianapolis, she raised funds to establish the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and contributed money to the Flanner House and Bethel African American Methodist Episcopal Church.
At the time of her death in 1919 due to a cerebral hemorrhage, Walker was touted as a millionaire. However, according to her obituary in The New York Times, “she said herself two years ago  that she was not yet a millionaire but hoped to be sometime.” In 1919, the average American’s annual salary was $750. Instructions in her will bequeathed nearly two-thirds of her estate’s future profits to charity. A’Lelia took over the company and ran it until her death in 1931 from the same affliction which claimed her mother.
The original home of Madam C.J. Walker’s Manufacturing Company is now The Madam Walker Theatre Center.
Madam C.J. Walker’s name was known all throughout the United States and the Caribbean, far beyond her death and even to this day. While she was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, many remembrances remain in Indianapolis, the city she chose for her company headquarters. Her personal papers have been preserved at the Indiana Historical Society and a container of Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower remains in the permanent collection at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. The original home of Madam C.J. Walker’s Manufacturing Company is now The Madam Walker Theatre Center.
Before her own young passing, A’Lelia wrote a biography of her mother titled On Her Own Ground. This text is the basis for an upcoming Netflix series about Madam C.J. Walker starring Octavia Spencer.