American Rags-to-Riches Mythos: The Madam C. J. Walker Saga, Part 1
"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." Bundles, A'Lelia. Madam C.J. Walker, 2009.
Almost every school child has heard of Madam C. J. Walker. Many idolize her. She is the stuff of legend and an icon of the American "rags-to-riches" mythos. Madam Walker was of course an incredibly successful business person, beauty culturist, inventor, and inarguably the wealthiest self made African American woman of the early 20th Century.
What many don't know is that she was also a visionary, philanthropist, real estate mogul, motivational speaker, world traveler, educator, supporter of women's rights and economic freedom, wife, mother, political and social activist.
Madam Walker rubbed elbows with such luminaries as Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, Mary McCloud Bethune, and W.E.B. Du Bois. She decried lynching and protested the discriminatory treatment experienced by black soldiers on their return to the United States from the battle fields of WWI. Thanks to her vision and the legacy of the Madam Walker Manufacturing Company, hundreds of African American women were able to achieve a substantial measure of economic success and racial pride at a time when other opportunities were virtually non-existent.
Madam Walker was born December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana to parents who were formerly enslaved. The youngest of several children, her father Owen and mother Minerva Breedlove named her Sarah; Sarah Breedlove. Very early on, Sarah was on the move. Her meanderings to the west and north however preceded the Great Migration of 1916 to 1918. In 1873, at the age of six she was orphaned. With her older sister Louvenia, she moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi. At the age of 14 Sarah married her first husband, Moses McWilliams. They had a daughter, Lelia in 1885. By 1887 at the age of 20 however, she was widowed and moved to St. Louis. Sarah's situation in St. Louis was very similar to that of most African American women of her time. She supported herself and her daughter by taking in laundry, and working as a maid. To better herself however she attended night school.
It was perhaps the fact that her own hair started to fall out at about this time that she became interested in what of course is every woman's crowning glory: a good healthy head of hair. To improve her appearance, Sarah started experimenting on her own hair with various ointments. By 1905 she had developed a series of formulas for hair growth, skin care, and general beauty enhancement for women of color. These products were packaged and sold door-to-door. Many people believe that Sarah invented the straightening comb probably because one was included in each beauty package sold. In any case, it was not long before Sarah was able to stop taking in laundry in order to focus on her new business venture.
In 1905 she moved once again, this time to Denver, Colorado. It was here that she met and eventually married Charles Joseph (C. J.) Walker and her business was doing quite well. Although many black women of the time were addressed affectionately or condescendingly as "Aunt" or "Auntie" Sarah refused to settle for these monikers, and insisted on being addressed as "Madam C.J. Walker."
C. J. became Madam's publicist and manager. He also expanded sales through mail order. For a short time the couple moved to Pittsburgh in order to be with Madam's daughter Lelia. There they established Lelia College, a school of beauty culture and business management. Graduates of the college became known as "Walker Agents."
By 1911, Madam C.J. had established her headquarters in Indianapolis and her business venture, Madam Walker Manufacturing Company was formally incorporated. Although there were agents, associates, schools, and outlets in major cities throughout the United States, the company was run like a family business.
Nieces, nephews, and of course daughter Lelia had prominent positions. Madam was also probably one of the first business owners who not only recognized, but supported unionization of her associates. The National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C.J. Walker Agents were organized in 1916. Members paid dues of about 25 cents per month, were guaranteed a death benefit, and often privileged to attend one of Madam's motivational presentations.
Lelia was somewhat of a rolling stone herself and deserves a blog post of her own which will be posted at a later date. By 1913 Lelia was living in New York, had renamed herself A'Lelia, and her mother joined her in 1916. They purchased two town houses on 136 Street in Harlem and renovated them to accommodate a hair salon, personal residences, and social gatherings. The Countee Cullen Library now occupies the land on which the Walker townhouses once sat.
Not content to just sit in Harlem, Madam hired black architect Vertner Tandy to design and construct a mansion on Irvington-on-Hudson, NY. This was a grand undertaking and of course controversial, given her race and gender. The mansion was named Villa Lewaro, an acronym for her daughter's full name; A'Lelia Walker Robinson.
Madam C.J. made Villa Lewaro her main residence once it was completed in 1918 and died there at the age of 51 in 1919.
Villa Lewaro is now privately owned and although it is not open to the public, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
It is quite remarkable what Sarah Breedlove, Madam C.J. Walker accomplished in her short life. To paraphrase a song by Billy Joel: her "candle burned out long before…her legend ever did" or will!
As I was celebrating my birthday on March 16, 2010 Charles (Charlie) Rangel was introducing a bill to a joint session of the House and Senate, 111th Congress. The bill proposed that Madam C. J. Walker be formally recognized as one of history's greatest business people, as well as a role model and inspiration for youth, women, and all African Americans. H.J. RES.81.IH was subsequently accepted and referred to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform for further consideration.
More recently, several street co-namings were proposed for consideration by the New York City Council, Committee on Parks and Recreation on December 8, 2010. Included was the co-naming of West 136 Street to "Madam C.J. & A'Lelia Walker Place." 2011/006 was passed into legislation on December 20, and thus the street co-naming became official. A date to commemorate the co-naming is pending.