WALKER, MADAM C. J.
DECEMBER 23, 1867
MAY 25, 1919
Madame C. J. Walker was an entrepreneur, hair-care industry pioneer, philanthropist, and political activist. Born Sarah Breedlove to ex-slaves Owen and Minerva Breedlove on a Delta, Louisiana cotton plantation, she was orphaned by age seven. She lived with her sister, Louvenia, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, until 1882, when she married Moses McWilliams, in part to escape Louvenia's cruel husband. In 1887, when her daughter, Lelia (later known as A'Lelia Walker), was two years old, Moses McWilliams died. For the next eighteen years she worked as a laundress in St. Louis. But in 1905, with $1.50 in savings, the thirty-seven-year-old McWilliams moved to Denver to start her own business after developing a formula to treat her problem with baldness—an ailment common among African-American women at the time, brought on by poor diet, stress, illness, damaging hair-care treatments, and scalp disease. In January 1906 she married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper sales agent, who helped design her advertisements and mail-order operation.
Although Madam Walker is often said to have invented the "hot comb," it is more likely that she adapted metal implements popularized by the French to suit blackPage 2260 | Top of Article women's hair. Acutely aware of the debate about whether black women should alter the appearance of their natural hair texture, she insisted years later that her Walker System was not intended as a hair "straightener" but rather as a grooming method to heal and condition the scalp to promote hair growth and prevent baldness.
From 1906 to 1916 Madam Walker traveled throughout the United States, Central America, and the West Indies promoting her business. She settled briefly in Pittsburgh, establishing the first Lelia College of Hair Culture there in 1908, then moved the company to Indianapolis in 1910, building a factory and vastly increasing her annual sales. Her reputation as a philanthropist was solidified in 1911, when she contributed one thousand dollars to the building fund of the Indianapolis YMCA. In 1912 she and C. J. Walker divorced, but she retained his name. Madam Walker joined her daughter, A'Lelia, and A'Lelia's adopted daughter, Mae (later Mae Walker Perry), in Harlem in 1916. She left the daily management of her manufacturing operation in Indianapolis to her longtime attorney and general manager, Freeman B. Ransom, factory forewoman Alice Kelly, and assistant general manager Robert L. Brokenburr.
Madam Walker's business philosophy stressed economic independence for the twenty thousand former maids, farm laborers, housewives, and schoolteachers she employed as agents and factory and office workers. To further strengthen her company, she created the Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America and held annual conventions.
During World War I Walker was among those who supported the government's black recruitment efforts and war bond drives. But after the bloody 1917 East St. Louis riot, she joined the planning committee of the Negro Silent Protest Parade, traveling to Washington, D.C., to present a petition urging President Woodrow Wilson to support legislation that would make lynching a federal crime. As her wealth and visibility grew, Walker became increasingly outspoken, joining those blacks who advocated an alternative peace conference at Versailles after the war to monitor proceedings affecting the world's people of color. She intended her estate in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York—Villa Lewaro, which was designed by black architect Vertner W. Tandy—not only as a showplace but as an inspiration to other blacks.
During the spring of 1919, aware that her long battle with hypertension was taking its final toll, Madam Walker revamped her will, directing her attorney to donate five thousand dollars to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's antilynching campaign and to contribute thousands of dollars to black educational, civic, and social institutions and organizations.
When she died at age fifty-one, at Villa Lewaro, Walker was widely considered the wealthiest black woman in America and was reputed to be the first African-American woman millionaire. Her daughter, A'Lelia Walker—a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance—succeeded her as president of the Mme. C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.
Walker's significance is rooted not only in her innovative (and sometimes controversial) hair-care system but also in her advocacy of black women's economic independence and her creation of business opportunities at a time when most black women worked as servants and share-croppers. Her entrepreneurial strategies and organizational skills revolutionized what would become a multibillion-dollar ethnic hair-care and cosmetics industry by the last decade of the twentieth century. Having led an early life of hardship, she became a trailblazer of black philanthropy, using her wealth and influence to leverage social, political, and economic rights for women and blacks. In 1992 Madam Walker was elected to the National Business Hall of Fame.
Bundles, A'Lelia Perry. Madam C. J. Walker—Entrepreneur. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.
Bundles, A'Lelia Perry. On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. New York: Scribner, 2001.
Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: Morrow, 1984.
Lowry, Beverly. Her Dream of Dreams: The Rise and Triumph of Madam C. J. Walker. New York: Knopf, 2003.
A'LELIA PERRY BUNDLES (1996)
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3444701272