As we continue to recognize key record-breaking moments in celebration of Black History Month, we take a look at one of the most well-known success stories in the Black community: the journey of Madam C. J. Walker.
Her story is not just one for the record books, but one that remains on the shelves of beauty stores today.
Businesswoman Madam C. J. Walker is celebrated for the strides she was able to make at a time where it was very difficult for Black individuals to succeed.
As a self-made entrepreneur in the 19th century, Walker built her empire by creating specialized products for African American hair care and marketing them across the United States.
Her business was so successfully developed, that the Louisiana-native eventually became the world’s first self-made millionairess, breaking a prominent barrier for women and Black entrepreneurs.
While many know of her successful hair care line, few are aware of how Madam C. J. Walker became a business savant.
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, she was the first member of her family to be born free, as her parents and older siblings were previously enslaved on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana.
Walker found work as a cotton picker in Mississippi, married her first husband, Moses McWilliams, at the age of 14, and had her daughter A'Lelia, shortly after in 1885.
Sadly, Moses died two years later, forcing Walker to move to St. Louis where her brothers had established themselves as barbers.
Despite facing adversity and racism, Walker maintained her ambitions and never steered away from hard work.
Although she had much to juggle at an early age, she still managed to work as a washerwoman by day, go to school by night, and earn enough money to send her daughter to public school.
During her time in St. Louis, she met her second husband and advertising expert Charles Walker, who would later be the driving force in promoting her products.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Walker’s fame is that she did not initially intend to create such a milestone product.
After developing a scalp condition that caused her to lose her hair in the 1890s, she experimented with home remedies including in-store hair care treatments to improve her condition as well as others who were experiencing similar issues.
With an interest in haircare, she worked as a sales agent for a beauty company run by Annie Turnbo Malone, before branching out on her own with "Madam C. J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower" in 1905.
In 1907, the Madam C. J. Walker Company was born, with products that included her uniquely crafted formula for pomade, brushing, and the use of heated combs.
Walker and her husband spent their first year traveling around the Southern United States, promoting her business and giving lecture demonstrations of her "Walker Method" which cleverly utilized all her products.
Just three years later, she transferred her main business operations to Indianapolis, Indiana, where the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company had become an affluent success, and an eminent staple among Black individuals nationwide.
She had a remarkable gift for marketing and promotion, constantly traveling around America, giving presentations, and rallying her army of around 25,000 sales agents who helped to do the same.
Walker's company is significant in history as it sold a variety of hair care products targeted at African-American women like herself, whose needs were not met by the mainstream brands of the time.
Her influence extends far beyond the hair care world within the Black community, as she was a supporter of several philanthropic efforts.
As her company grew exponentially in the early 20th century, she played a large role in the social and political culture of the Harlem Renaissance founded organizations that included educational scholarships and donations to homes for the elderly, the NAACP, among other programs focused on improving the lives of African Americans.
Her home, Villa Lewaro, was even used as a gathering place for many luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
By the time of her death on 25 May 1919, at the age of 51, Madam Walker was running a business with an annual revenue of over $500,000 and had amassed a large and diverse real estate portfolio which included an elegant mansion in Westchester County, New York and a palatial townhouse in Harlem, New York City.
The exact extent of Madam Walker's wealth is difficult to determine. She denied that she was a millionaire during her lifetime, but her substantial real estate holdings (her property in New York state alone was valued at $700,000 at the time of her death) combined with her controlling interest in a $500,000-a-year firm, bring her estimated net worth to well over $1,000,000.
Her impact in the Black community and Black hair overall continues. Netflix released a 2020 series titled “Self Made”, which featured award-winning, Octavia Spencer to portray the life and story of Walker and her company.
Today, individuals can purchase Madam C.J. Walker products at Sephora and other beauty distributors worldwide, meaning her hair care line has been on the shelves for over 200 years!
Walker’s legacy continues to be prominent in the Black community and within the business world, inspiring entrepreneurs, women, and beyond to pursue their dreams and persevere in the face of challenges.