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Walker, Madam C. J. (23 Dec. 1867-25 May 1919), businesswoman, was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, the daughter of Minerva (maiden name unknown) and Owen Breedlove, sharecroppers. Her destitute parents struggled mightily against the system of racism and oppression in the post-Civil War years but were defeated by it and died, leaving Sarah an orphan at six years of age. She lived next with her sister, Louvenia, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, but life was not much better there. In 1881, at the age of fourteen, she married Moses "Jeff" McWilliams, having one daughter, Lelia (later to call herself A'Lelia). In 1887 McWilliams was killed, possibly lynched during a race riot. Sarah Breedlove, twenty years old, barely literate, unskilled, and with a two-year-old child, faced a desperate situation. Leaving Mississippi, she headed up the Mississippi River to St. Louis where she became a washerwoman.
Every day, hour after hour, for years, Sarah Breedlove stood over the steaming hot wash tubs, her hands, face, and hair assaulted by the hot water and the steaming vapors of chemicals and fumes. As a result, like many other black women forced to work in this situation, she started to lose her hair. Breedlove began experimenting with the various chemicals she used every day, trying to find some kind of preparation that would aid in the care and grooming of the hair and skin of black women like herself. Sometime between 1900 and 1905 she came up with a new hair care formula for black women. The nature of the formula was always kept secret by her and the company, but it seems probable that the highly touted "secret ingredient" was sulphur. Some people at the time, however, claimed that Breedlove bought a product made by Annie Turnbo Malone's Poro Company, analyzed it, and then copied it.
At about the same time, Breedlove's firm also developed an improved version of the hot comb, made out of steel to make it more useful to African Americans. With her ointment and her steel hot comb, Breedlove developed what would later be known as the "Walker System" for straightening hair, though she always insisted that her major contribution was the growing, not the straightening, of African-American hair. Nonetheless, a major emphasis of the Walker System was the removal of "kinks" from the hair of black women--to straighten their hair--so it was often referred to as the "Anti-Kink Walker System."
After meeting with some success, Breedlove decided in July 1905 to move to Denver, where she took a job in a laundry and began peddling her hair product in her spare time. Soon thereafter Breedlove met Charles J. Walker, a newspaperman and publicist, who gave her tips for marketing and advertising her product. It was he who evidently convinced her to use the name Madam C. J. Walker. The Walker business proved highly successful in Denver, and the two were married a few months later. Charles Walker handled advertising and promotion and tended to affairs at the home "office," while Madam Walker continued to go door-to-door marketing the product. As the popularity of her hair-care products grew, Walker began training "agent-operators." She traveled extensively in the South and East, giving lectures and demonstrations at black clubs, homes, schools, and churches.
The Walker System became so popular in the eastern states that Walker decided it was imperative to establish an office closer to those markets. While on her travels in 1910, she stopped in Indianapolis and decided to move the headquarters there, establishing a large-scale manufacturing operation. Later she would add a training center for her salespeople, along with research and production laboratories, and another beauty school.
Walker at this time also began to organize her agents into a series of "Walker Clubs" that gave cash prizes to the clubs doing the largest amount of philanthropic work. These clubs became engines of business growth as well as community and individual uplift. Then Walker began to bring her agents together in national conventions. The first of these was held in Philadelphia in 1917, when 200 Walker agents convened for the first meeting of the Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America. Coming from the deep South, the North, and the West, they met to learn new techniques, to share business experiences, and to tell their own personal success stories. At these conventions Walker would personally hand out $50 prizes to the clubs that had been most generous in supporting their churches and missionary societies. The annual meetings also became venues for the empowerment of African-American women.
Walker became increasingly involved in club and philanthropic work. She joined the National Association of Colored Women when it met at her church in St. Louis in 1904. She also became a staunch benefactor of Bethune-Cookman College in Florida, leaving it $5,000 in her will, and gave sizable contributions to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. During her time in Indianapolis, she donated $1,000 to the YMCA and made further donations to homes for the aged and the needy. In addition, she maintained scholarships for young women at Tuskegee and gave money to Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina.
As Walker became wealthier from her hair preparation business (the firm by 1917 had business amounting to $500,000 annually), she began to invest her profits in other endeavors, particularly real estate. In 1916 she left Indianapolis to live in New York City, where she engaged in an increasingly more opulent lifestyle. She bought a four-and-a-half-acre estate in Irvington on the banks of the Hudson and built a gracious mansion with a formal Italian garden and swimming pool, costing over $350,000, called "Villa Lewaro." By this time, her health began to fail, and soon thereafter she died at her new home. She had divorced her husband in 1912.
Walker was a washerwoman until age thirty-eight; when she died thirteen years later, she left a fortune of between a half million and a million dollars, having successfully operated the largest black-owned business in the United States. Nonetheless, her cultural legacy is somewhat ambiguous. Although she served as a model of black entrepreneurship, gave pride and empowerment to a generation of African-American women, and generously contributed to worthy groups and causes, the source of her fortune was a product that exploited a desire to lessen the distinctiveness of black identity. During an era in American history when poverty often seemed the inevitable lot of the descendents of slaves and the ridicule of black features was pervasive, the use of Madam C. J. Walker's Hair Grower to straighten one's hair enabled African Americans to suppose that they could look more like people of European origin. Nearly half a century would pass before the Afro would become an assertive statement of black identity.
Some of Madam Walker's personal papers, as well as those of her company, amounting to some eighty boxes of material and forty-seven ledgers of business interest are deposited at the Indiana Historical Society. There are also a number of letters between Walker and Booker T. Washington and Emmett J. Scott, along with some Walker Manufacturing promotional materials, in the Booker T. Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. Walker's last letter to her daughter, along with a brief account of her life was published in A'Lelia P. Bundles, "Madam C. J. Walker to Her Daughter A'Lelia Walker--The Last Letter," in SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women 1, no. 2 (Fall 1984), 34-35. Useful biographical accounts appear in Charles Latham, Jr., "Madam C. J. Walker & Company," Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 1, no. 3 (Summer 1989): 29-34, and Leon Davis, Jr., "Madam C. J. Walker: A Woman of Her Times" (master's thesis, Howard Univ., 1978). Lengthy obituaries are in the New York Times, New York Sun, Indianapolis News, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 27 May 1919.
John N. Ingham
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John N. Ingham. "Walker, Madam C. J.";
American National Biography Online April 2014.