Madam C. J. Walker was a black entrepreneur considered to be the first African-American – as well as the first woman of any race – to become a millionaire.
Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was the first child in her family born after the Emancipation Proclamation. Orphaned at age seven, she married at 14 to escape the abuse of her brother-in-law’s household. A widow at 20 with a young daughter, she moved to St. Louis, Missouri, residing near her older siblings who were employed as haircutters.
During this time, she began experimenting with formulas to aid scalp infections that caused baldness, due to the poor hygiene of the average American of the time period. After moving to Denver in 1905, she worked as a cook for a pharmacist, from whom she learned the basic chemistry that allowed her to perfect an ointment that healed dandruff. She began achieving local success with what later became known as the “Walker Method,” or the “Walker System of Beauty Culture,” which involved her own formula for pomade, brushing, and the use of heated combs. In 1906, she married newspaper advertising salesman Charles Joseph Walker, and was therefore known as Madam C.J. Walker.
In 1908, Walker opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh as her profits and popularity continuously increased among the African-American market. Walker was drawn to the prosperous and growing African-American business community in Indianapolis. By 1910, the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company had relocated and was met with great success. Profits began to surpass $1M. The company not only manufactured cosmetics and cosmetic materials, but trained sales beauticians as well; these “Walker Agents” became well-known throughout the black communities of the United States, selling her products door to door, demonstrating her scalp treatments in churches and lodges, and devising sales and marketing strategies. Madam C.J. Walker promoted a philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness” as a means of advancing the status of African-Americans.
Walker is widely credited as one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire. She became a philanthropist, as well as an advocate for positive social change. She continuously made generous donations to charities, schools, and orphanages. She oversaw construction on a $1M facility that would house not only her company headquarters and factory, but also a African motif theater, a beauty salon, a ballroom, a drug store, a coffee shop, and several offices – all for African-Americans who did not have equal rights during this time period. She organized clubs and conventions for her representatives, which recognized not only successful sales, but also philanthropic and educational efforts among African-Americans, and also funded scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute and donated large sums to the NAACP and the YMCA.
Though Walker passed away in 1919, her legacy continues to live on to this day. In 1927, the Walker Building, an arts center that Walker had begun work on before her death, was opened in Indianapolis. An important African-American cultural center for decades, it is now a registered National Historic Landmark. Skin and hair care company Sundial Brands launched a collaboration with Sephora titled “Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture” in her honor, which included four collections and focused on the use of natural ingredients to care for different types of hair. Walker was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca, New York back in 1993, but we shall continue to praise her name, ambition, and innovation for years to come.
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