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I had to make my own living and my own opportunity! But I made it! Don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them!1
Born as Sarah Breedlove in December 1867, in Delta, Louisiana, Madame Walker was the third child and second daughter of Minerva and Owen Breedlove. Former slaves, the Breedloves worked as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation and lived in a one-room cabin. By the time she was five, Sarah had learned to carry water to field hands, drop cotton seed into plowed furrows, and, for a dollar a week, wash white people's clothes with strong lye soap, wooden sticks, and washboards.
In 1874, Sarah was left an orphan, and she moved in with her sister Louvenia. A few years later, after a failure of the cotton crop, the sisters moved across the river to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they worked as washerwomen and domestic servants. At 14, Sarah married Moses McWilliams. At 17, she bore her only child, a daughter named Lelia. Her husband died in 1887, when Sarah was 19. Not willing to live with her sister again, Sarah set off for St. Louis where, she was told, laundress jobs were plentiful and fairly well paid.
For the next 17 years, Sarah supported herself and her daughter as a washerwoman. She went through a second, brief marriage and became active in the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. It was there that she encountered prosperous, well-educated African Americans, and as a result, she began to consider how to improve her appearance. Only in her thirties, she found her hair was falling out. She experimented with hair products already on the market, but nothing helped. Finally, as she told a reporter, God "answered my prayer, for one night I had a dream, and in that dream 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, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind I would begin to sell it."2
Because St. Louis already had several cosmetic companies, Walker decided to move to another city to set up her own business. She chose Denver because her brother's widow and four children lived there. Her own daughter was by then at college in Tennessee. The one special friend she truly regretted leaving was Charles Joseph (C.J.) Walker, a sales agent for a local African-American newspaper.
Arriving in Denver in 1905 with $1.50 savings, she rented an attic room, joined the local AME church, and found a job as a cook. She saved her money and before long she was able to quit that job and, taking in laundry two days a week to pay her rent, spend the rest of her time mixing her products and selling them door to door. Wonderful Hair Grower, Glossine, and Vegetable Shampoo were well accepted by the African-American women of Denver. By 1906, C. J. Walker moved to Denver and the two soon married. From then on, Sarah began calling herself Madam (sometimes spelled Madame) C. J. Walker, a name she thought gave her products more appeal.
At first, Madam Walker used all her profits for materials and advertising in papers such as Denver's Colorado Statesmen. C.J. Walker, familiar with newspaper promotion campaigns, helped develop a marketing plan, design advertisements, and organize a mail order business for his wife's products, but he was not as ambitious as she. As Madam Walker described: "When we began to make $10 a day, he thought that was enough, thought I ought to be satisfied. But I was convinced that my hair preparation would fill a long-felt want. And when we found it impossible to agree, due to his narrowness of vision, I embarked on business for myself."3 She later divorced Walker, putting the 21-year-old Lelia in charge of the mail-order branch of the business while she traveled around the country promoting the products. Business grew and in 1908, Walker and Lelia settled in Pittsburgh where they established Lelia College, a training facility for the Walker System of Hair Culture.
Walker continued to tour the country promoting her business and hiring hairdressers and door-to-door sales representatives. She recruited and trained a national sales force that included schoolteachers, housewives, cooks, and washerwomen. Walker's traveling agents taught these women to set up beauty shops in their homes, keep business records, and make their customers feel pampered and valued.
In February 1910, Walker visited Indianapolis, Indiana, and was very impressed with what she saw. The city had become the country's largest inland manufacturing center because of its access to eight major railway systems. This would be a major asset for a mail-order business. The city also was home to a substantial African-American community, whose main thoroughfares were lined with cafes, offices, and other thriving businesses. Madam Walker decided to move her entire operation there. She built a factory, hair and manicure salon, and another training school. After intensive training in hair and beauty culture, graduates of the school were ready to give scalp treatments, restyle hair, and give manicures and massages. She soon had 5,000 agents throughout the country and her company was making $7000 per week.
In 1913, her daughter, who would later change her name to A'Lelia, persuaded Madam Walker to buy a house in Harlem as the New York base of the business. The house contained living quarters, a beauty salon, and a school for training salon operators. Walker soon began to spend at least half her time in New York and moved there permanently in 1916. She left the day-to-day management of her manufacturing operation in Indianapolis to F.B. Ransom, her attorney and general manager, and Alice Kelly, the factory forewoman. Later that year she built her dream house, a mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, a wealthy community north of New York City.
By 1917, Walker agents were holding yearly conventions, learning new techniques and sharing experiences. One agent wrote in 1913: "You opened up a trade for hundreds of colored women to make an honest and profitable living where they make as much in one week as a month's salary would bring from any other position that a colored woman can secure."4 These employed women now were able to educate their children, buy homes, and support various charitable organizations.
By the time she died in 1919, the 51-year-old former laundress had become one of the wealthiest businesswomen of her day. She was mourned by many, including W. E. B. DuBois who wrote an obituary for The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). "It is given," he said, "to few persons to transform a people in a generation. Yet this was done by the late Madam C. J. Walker....[She] made and deserved a fortune and gave much of it away generously."5
Walker left one unfulfilled dream. The dream grew out of an experience that enraged her. After she had been in Indianapolis for some time and was already a wealthy woman, she went one afternoon to the Isis Movie Theater and gave the ticket seller a dime, standard admission at the time. The agent pushed the coin back across the counter, saying that the price had gone up to 25 cents, but only for "colored persons." Madam Walker, an enthusiastic moviegoer, immediately asked her attorney to sue the theater and hired an architect to draw up plans for a new building to house the Walker business. The building, covering a whole city block, was also intended to serve as a social and cultural center for the African-American community in Indianapolis. An elegant theater in the new building would welcome African Americans.
Madam Walker's business was carried on by her daughter and is still in operation, although no one in the Walker family is currently associated with the firm. In 1927, A'Lelia Walker Robinson completed the Walker Building in memory of her mother. It is a fitting tribute to a woman who once proclaimed, "Perseverance is my motto!"
Questions for Reading 1
1. What conditions of her childhood made Sarah Breedlove Walker understand the value of hard work?
2. Why did Walker develop her special hair formula?
3. Why did Walker move to Denver? Why did she later establish her company in Indianapolis? Why do you think she might have eventually moved to New York, although her products continued to be manufactured in Indianapolis?
4. What factors do you think helped Walker's business be so successful?
5. How did Walker benefit the lives of African-American women?
Reading 1 was compiled from Page Putnam Miller, "Madam C. J. Walker Building" (Marion County, Indiana) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U. S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990; and A'Lelia Perry Bundles, Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991).
1A'Lelia Perry Bundles, Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991), 105.