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“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. 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.” Madam Walker, National Negro Business League Convention, July 1912

Born on a Louisiana plantation December 23rd, 1867, Sarah Breedlove (better known as Madam CJ Walker), transformed the African American woman by creating her own line of beauty products aimed exclusively at women of color. Orphaned at the age of 7 Sarah, along with her older sister, Louvenia, survived together working in cotton fields near Vicksburg, Missippi. At the age of 14 she married Moses McWilliams so she could leave her cruel brother-in-law. On June 6th, 1885 at the age of 18, Walker gave birth to her only daughter, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia Walker). When her husband was mu

rdered two years later by a White lynch mob Sarah moved to St. Louis to live with her four brothers who were making their living as barbers. There was little work for a young single mother, much less a single black girl at the time but by working for as little as $1.50 a day as a laundrywoman she was able to educate her daughter and became involved with the National Association of Colored Women.

When Sarah began to lose her hair from a scalp ailment in the 1890’s she began to experiment with a number of homemade remedies and store-bought products, including products made by Annie Malone, another black woman entrepreneur of the time. During this time Sarah moved to Denver to be a sales agent for Annie Malone and in 1905 she married her husband Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaperman from St. Louis. It is at this time that she changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker and began her own business selling Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. The product came to her in a dream she had where she says a “big Black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.” (myblackhistory.net). After sharing her new product with some friends she realized that there were very few hair products available for African Americans so she decided to go into business selling hair products to Black women.

Sarah took her product and went on the road for a year and a half going through the heavily populated South and Southeast selling her products door to door and in 1908 she moved to Pittsburgh where she opened the Lelia College in order to train “hair culturist”. In the school she taught other black women how to build their own business. After living in Pittsburgh for two years Sarah moved to Indianapolis where she built her own factor, hair and manicure salon and another training school. After less than a year Sarah gained national attention when she donated $1,000 to the building fund for the ‘colored’ YMCA in Indianapolis. This was to be the first in a long career in philanthropy for Sarah as she continued to support numerous organizations throughout her lifetime.

After traveling to Central America and the Caribbean to expand her business Sarah moved to New York in 1916. She left her Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis to her factory forelady and former school teacher, Ransom and Alice Kelly while she oversaw the business from her office in New York. As soon as she arrived in Harlem, Sarah became involved in Harlem’s social and political life by taking a particular interest in the NAACP to whom she donated $5,000 to their anti-lynching movement. Sarah even went to the White House in 1917, as part of a group of leaders from Harlem, after a white mob murdered over three dozen African Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois. While there they presented a petition to advocate federal anti-lynching legislation.

In 1917, due to her growing business Sarah held a convention in Philadelphia for her Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America. This is thought to have been one of the first national meetings for businesswomen in the country. At the convention Sarah spoke to the women about how to improve their businesses, encouraged them to become politically active and rewarded them for their success. She told them, ” This is the greatest country under the sun, 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 as the East St. Louis riot be forever impossible.” (myblackhistory.net). At the biennial convention of the National Association of Colored Women in 1918, Sarah was recognized for making the largest contribution to help save the Washington, DC home of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Sarah’s dedication to philanthropy continued throughout her life as she contributed to the NAACP, the YMCA, orphanages, retirement homes, black schools, numerous organizations and a large number of individuals.

Sarah commisioned her New York estate to be designed and built by Vertner Tandy, the first licensed black architect in New York and moved into her home, Villa Lewaro in May of 1918. She died a year later on May 25th 1919 due to complications of hypertension at the age of 51. Throughout her life, from the start when she worked in the cotton fields to her days as a political speaker and philanthropist, Sarah Walker or Madam Walker as she was later known, gave black women a place to learn a business and  take control of their lives. Not only did her products give black women a way to take care of their families by becoming part of her business but she also made a name for herself by being the pioneer for modern black hair-care and cosmetics. Her small chemistry experiment to find a way to save her hair helped her to become the wealthiest African-American woman in American as well as the first self-made female American millionaire.

 

“There is no royal flower-strewn path to success, and if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.” – Madame Sarah C.J. Walker

 

Works Cited:

Bundles, A’Lelia. “Madam Walker Essay.Madam CJ Walker | Official Madam C. J. Walker Biography. Web. 17 Oct. 2011. <http://www.madamcjwalker.com/&gt;.

 

“Black Scientists in America- Madame CJ Walker.” Black History in America Home Page. Web. 17 Oct. 2011. <http://www.myblackhistory.net/Madame_Walker.htm&gt;.

 

First Post!

Well due to already using this site for work making a new blog wasn’t too hard to do but creating my own posts is new to me. I look forward to using this site further!