“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 July 1912
You can put her story with the likes of Henry Ford, or the Vidal Sassoon of her time. An American tale of love, struggle, happiness and achievement of the American dream. Born Sarah Breedlove the fifth child of Owen and Minerva, Sarah was the first in her family to be born free. Married twice with one child, a daughter, A’Lelia. Sarah would receive her famous name Madam CJ Walker from the encouragement of her second husband and business partner Charles J. Walker.
Education was always priority, as a washerwoman earning $1.50 a day she earned enough to send her daughter A’Lelia to the city’s public schools. Walker also attended public night school whenever she could.
Her famous hair care product which made Walker one of the first women of any race to be a self-made millionaire, came from a need after she suffered scalp issues that resulted in hair loss in the 1890’s. After years of mixing and testing different formulas and years of wrongs before finding the right mix, she found it. Next she traveled around the country holding seminars in parks, churches and homes promoting her “Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” brand.
Madam CJ Walker proved not only that it could be done but she did it during a time when she could lose her life for trying to make a living. She did it during a time where opportunity for blacks were less than few. Her hair movement provided a way out for the maids, cooks, field workers, servers. Women saw hope, dignity and a way out during a time where hope was differed and the heart was sick.
These “Walker Agents” became well known throughout the black communities of the United States in the early 1900’s. In turn, they promoted Walker’s philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness” as a means of advancing the status of African-Americans.
Today the African American hair care industry makes millions in products from natural hair, braids, and weaves. The difference from today and Madam CJ Walker, her philosophy. One of “cleanliness and loveliness” was a means of advancing the status of African-Americans. Interesting thought image if all of us weave-wearing, braid-twisting sisters looked at our hair as a means of advancing the status of African Americans? Or if more than a tenth of every barbershop and beauty shop talked more than the latest trending social media topics and actually organized in unity to its community and customers with voter registration, economic empowerment and civic engagement?
Walker organized clubs and conventions for her representatives, which recognized not only successful sales, but also philanthropic and educational efforts among African-Americans. She was accredited for making the largest contribution to save the house of abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Washington. She was asked by the federal government to encourage African Americans to serve and support the war effort. As a black businesswoman and role model, she traveled the country giving lectures on political, economic and social issues, such as federal anti-lynching laws. She worked with national leaders to form the NAACP.
Meanwhile Walker’s daughter A’Lelia grew up to be a lover of the Harlem Renaissance, she was known for entertaining Harlem and Greenwich Village writers, artists and musicians, as well as visiting African and European royalty. Befriending the likes of Langston Hughes, Langston called her the “joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920’s.” Zora Neale Hurston outlined a play about her and her mother.
A’Lelia persuaded her mother to move to New York after her second marriage failed. The rich intriguing story of Walker can be found in books “The Black Rose: The Dramatic Story of Madam C.J. Walker,” “America’s First Black Female Millionaire” or “On Her Own Ground: a definitive biography of Madam C. J. Walker”—the legendary African American entrepreneur and philanthropist—by her great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles.
Her legacy can be found in her home, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington-on-Hudson, which is designated a National Historic Landmark. She was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. 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. In 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp of Madam C.J. Walker as part of its “Black Heritage” series.
Walker’s investment in Black American’s lives on through her great-great granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles who serves as president of the Madam CJ Walker/A’Lelia Walker Family Archives, she shares the history of her famous ancestors through speeches, publications, memorabilia, documents and several public initiatives. Ms. Bundles enjoyed a 30-year career at ABC and NBC as an executive and producer in network television news.
Madam CJ Walker legacy still thrives. Bundles’ bestselling biography On Her Own Ground, the story of legendary African American entrepreneur and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker, is being developed as a limited series. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer is attached to star as Walker and also will produce the project.