If you are a Black woman and find yourself at one of the big box beauty stores staring at rows of hair products for your type of hair, chances are you can thank Madam C.J. Walker for her work more than a century ago.
Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana. Her parents, Owen and Minerva Anderson Beedlove were former slaves. She was the fifth of six children, but the first one born into freedom.
Both of her parents were dead by the time she was 7 years old. When she was 14 she married her first husband, Moses McWilliams, in 1882. The two had one daughter named A’Lelia.
McWilliams died in 1887.
Breedloved then moved to St. Louis with her young daughter and married John Davis in 1894. That marriage lasted until 1903 when she left Davis and moved to Denver where she met and married her third husband, Charles J. Walker.
He worked in advertising and helped her promote her hair care business.
It’s haircare that made Madam C.J. Walker so well known. She invented what was known as the Wonderful Hair Grower. An ointment to basically help heal scalp ailments that plagued many African American women.
Walker’s great great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles is the official biographer for the beauty mogul. Bundles is named after Walker’s only child, A’Lelia Walker.
When we spoke with Bundles via Zoom recently and she explained how during the days when Walker was a young woman, many families didn’t have indoor plumbing and regular shampooing wasn’t possible. This meant scalp problems like lice and dandruff were left untreated and many black women began to lose their hair, including Walker herself.
Walker’s Wonderful Hairgrower which contained sulfur, petroleum and beeswax was a game-changer for Black women who finally had a product that worked for them.
It was sold in a small tin and Walker taught a legion of black women who used the product how to sell it.
But Walker wasn’t content to profit and keep it all to herself.
“Madam Walker understood that Black women needed products for themselves, but she also understood in the process that they wanted to be economically independent. So she created an army of sales agents and helped those women create generational wealth. So in some ways the hair care products, while they served a need, became a means to an end,” said Bundles.
Bundles says it is important for women to support one another. Seeing the success of local women like Stephine Jean, opening her own nail salon and forming a partnership with an Orlando WalMart is such an important milestone for up and coming entrepreneurs.
“That’s just the kind of gumption that Madam Walker had and when I read about her, the things that she was saying, ‘I had this idea, I wanted to go after it, other people helped me,’ it totally reminded me of Madam Walker,” said Bundles.
Walker was financially rewarded for her entrepreneurial spirit.
“Madam C.J. Walker is considered by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the first American woman to make a million dollars on her own in business,” said Bundles.
She went on to explain, “There were Black men who became millionaires before that. There were white women who either inherited or were married to someone, but we can actually document that by the time she died in 1919, her business and her assets, and her estate totaled more than a million dollars so she’s considered a self-made woman millionaire.”
It really is remarkable what Madam Walker was able to accomplish during the days when most women didn’t even yet have the right to vote. The 19th Amendment wouldn’t be ratified until 1920. Even then, Blacks were still disenfranchised because the 19th Amendment did not eliminate obstacles like literacy tests and poll taxes used to keep Black Americans from voting.
Walker clearly understood the importance of helping other Black women who faced many obstacles. She knew what these women were up against because she had encountered such deterrents as well.
Perhaps her willingness to support and mentor Black women was so strong because many doubted her ability to succeed.
Bundles said Walker had heard from her share to naysayers.
She explained some of the challenges Walker faced when it came to finding support.
“She said when she first started out, she said there were people who told me I wouldn’t make my train fare from one town to another,” Bundles said. But Walker didn’t let that stop her. Bundles said Walker believed in herself.
“You have to have supporters, but other people believe in you when you first believe in yourself.”