Madam C.J. Walker was a master brand builder long before it was in vogue. She is credited with being the nation’s first black self-made female millionaire, and her legacy has outlasted those who preceded her.
As the centennial of her death on May 25 approaches, some could argue that that legacy is more robust than ever. Sundial Brands, the parent company of personal care company SheaMoisture, sells Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture products in Sephora. Soon, SheaMoisture founder and Essence magazine owner Richelieu Dennis is reportedly set to turn Walker’s mansion into an incubator for black female entrepreneurs. Walker’s Legacy, an advocacy organization for multicultural businesswomen, bears her name.
And Netflix is set to premiere a limited series on her remarkable life, starring Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and produced by LeBron James, based on her 2001 biography “On Her Own Ground," written by her great-great-granddaughter, A'Lelia Bundles.
That her legacy lives on is no accident.
“I think that she was very conscious of what she was doing in creating a legacy that she really was a pioneer in the hair care industry, which of course, is now a multibillion-dollar industry,” Bundles told NBCBLK. “But, in the process, it wasn't just about building a business, it was about empowering women. And that legacy of empowering women, educating women, helping them to become economically independent is something that became legend in the black community.”
“And legend for very substantial reasons because generations of people benefited from the independent income that they were able to make, and the investments they were able to make, and the fact that they could educate their children, so people carried that pride in the story of Madam Walker through the generations.”
Walker was born Sarah Breedlove, the fifth child and first to be designated free to the formerly enslaved Owen and Minerva Breedlove, on a plantation near Delta, Louisiana, on Dec. 23, 1867. Orphaned at 7, she went to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to live with her sister. By 14, she was married. At 17, she gave birth to her only child, commonly known as A’Lelia Walker, before becoming a widow at 20. When she joined her four brothers, who worked as barbers, in St. Louis, she was a poor, single mother with little formal education working as a washerwoman. Interaction with strong women from the St. Paul A.M.E. Church and the National Association of Colored Women in St. Louis inspired her to want more.
She moved to Denver in 1905, where she briefly worked as a sales agent for Annie Turnbo Malone, a successful St. Louis-based hair care pioneer, and married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper ad salesman. The next year, she launched Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company with her first product, Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing salve that sparked hair growth. The formula, she claimed, came to her in a dream and successfully reversed her own hair loss. The name was so similar to Malone’s star product, Wonderful Hair Grower, that she took out an ad in a Colorado newspaper with the warning “b...
Walker was undeterred and began building her empire with assistance from her husband, who helped her place ads in black newspapers, and her college-educated daughter, who was her first key executive. Walker herself hit the road for over a year and a half promoting herself as she sold her products. Her hard work paid off and, by 1910, she had built her own factory in Indianapolis, along with a hair and manicure salon. She also built a training school there to train women in the Walker method to ensure optimum hair growth with her products. As her fortune bloomed, Walker shared it through generous donations to various causes such as the building fund for the Indianapolis “colored” YMCA as well as the NAACP and the national fight against lynching.
“Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face,” she said to Washington and the many other men in the room. “I feel that I am in a business that is a credit to the womanhood of our race.” Then Walker detailed her wealth and all that she had done to get here.
“I have built my own factory on my own ground,” she said. The next year, Washington himself welcomed her as an official speaker to the convention in Philadelphia.
In 1913, Walker owned three automobiles — a Ford Model T, a Waverley electric car and a seven-passenger Cole Touring Car — when women barely made up 10 percent of the nation’s licensed drivers. She gathered more than 200 black women in Philadelphia in 1917 for the Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention a year before Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, was born. She shipped her Cole overseas for sales trips throughout Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica. As many as 20,000 women sold her products.
Walker’s pride and confidence as a successful businesswoman moved Walker’s Legacy founder Natalie Madeira Cofield to name the advocacy group after the legendary entrepreneur. The organization is set to host its first national conference in Washington this fall and celebrates 10 years in January 2020. For almost a decade, Walker’s Legacy has shared resources with female entrepreneurs of color, offering conversations online and in person, as well as advocating for economic policies that support them in Walker’s name. As a young entrepreneur, Cofield had trouble finding a female mentor, so she turned to biographies and did a deep dive into Walker’s life.