Madam C.J. Walker was a brilliant, rags‐to‐riches entrepreneur who helped thousands of black women improve their lives and challenged racial segregation.
Millions of Americans were introduced to the life story of Madam C.J. Walker in the recently released Netflix miniseries Self‐Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. Although the dramatization took some liberties with the story, it ably captured Walker’s entrepreneurial spirit, which made her America’s first female, self‐made millionaire. For libertarians, Walker’s story is a reminder of the immense possibilities offered to Americans by the free enterprise system. Her story is also a powerful testament to the ability of members of marginalized groups to use markets as a means to demand equality and dignity—even in the face of systematic state‐based discrimination.1
Madam C.J. Walker was born in Delta, Louisiana as Sarah Breedlove in 1867—just two years after the end of the Civil War. Her parents had been born into slavery and, after the war, worked as sharecroppers. Breedlove’s early life was filled with hardship. She worked in the cotton fields with her five siblings until she was orphaned at the age of seven. She was then moved in with her sister and brother‐in‐law and endured what has been described as a cruel home. Breedlove married early in life (at fourteen), partially to escape her brother-in-law’s home; but she soon found herself in further hardship after she became a widow with a two‐year‐old daughter (Lelia) just six years into her marriage. At the age of twenty she “seemed destined” to be locked “into a life of poverty.”2
Breedlove ultimately decided to join her four brothers (all of whom were barbers) in St. Louis in 1888. She spent the next eighteen years working as a washerwoman and a cook. Breedlove, despite having no formal education up until that point, took night classes and used her hard‐earned money to send her daughter, Lelia, to school. She joined the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church and was also involved in the National Association of Colored Women. In 1904, Breedlove married John Davis, but he turned out to be an unreliable and unfaithful husband; the marriage ended in divorce.3
Breedlove’s life was further complicated during this period when her hair began falling out. According to her biographer and great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, “During the early 1900s, when most Americans lacked indoor plumbing and electricity, bathing was a luxury. As a result, Sarah and many other women were going bald because they washed their hair so infrequently, leaving it vulnerable to environmental hazards such as pollution, bacteria and lice.”4 It is likely that these environmental factors caused Breedlove’s hair to begin falling out after she moved to St. Louis in the 1890s. She later told the New York Times, “I was at my tubs one morning with a heavy wash before me. As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds, I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”5
According to Breedlove, the answer to improving her life came in the form of a dream. She prayed to God for a solution to her baldness and one night in a dream, “a big, black man appeared to me and told me what to mix for my hair.” Breedlove began experimenting with various ingredients and ultimately “settled on a new regimen of washing her hair more often and using a formula that combined a petroleum jelly‐like balm, beeswax, copper sulfate, sulfur and perfume to hide the sulfur smell.”6
Although Breedlove had found some relief for her hair aliments, her real entry into the cosmetic industry came in 1904 when she began using Annie Turnbo Malone’s “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower” and was so convinced of its efficacy that she later became a saleswoman for Malone.7 That same year she met Charles Joseph (C.J.) Walker, a “savvy salesman” for the St. Louis Clarion. The two married after Breedlove moved to Denver, Colorado in her role as a saleswoman for Malone.8
It was at this time that the moniker Madam C.J. Walker was born. Walker took the formula delivered to her in the dream and invested $1.25 to begin producing it, calling her product “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” What set Walker apart from other black female entrepreneurs was her masterful use of marketing. She eventually put her likeness on the packaging, thus tying her own likeness to black beauty in the mind of consumers.9 Along with her husband, Walker created marketing, advertising, and mail order catalogues for her products.10 She got the word out about her products, going went door‐to‐door, pitching her product at community gatherings, and, in time, taking out advertisements in all the major black newspapers. Most importantly, Walker built a brand that promised more than hair treatment. Indeed, her brand offered black women across the United States “a lifestyle, a concept of total hygiene and beauty that in her mind would bolster them with pride for advancement.”11
Despite Jim Crow segregation, Walker travelled across the country promoting her products and in 1908 she relocated again to Pittsburgh where she founded a beauty school. Although she spoke out against lynching and segregation, Walker was not able to overcome the state sponsored system of racial segregation.12 Indeed, in some ways racism, bigotry, and segregation laws may have even opened opportunities for her at the same time it denied her others. After all, white businessmen and women were not adequately fulfilling the cosmetic needs of black women. Walker seize the opportunity, filled the demand, and made herself rich. Along the way she created many sales jobs for black women, a pathway to the middle class for those who might otherwise be relegated to domestic service work.
In 1910, Walker incorporated and moved her company headquarters to Indianapolis at least in part because it had central access to railroads, allowing her to more easily ship her products to black women all over the country. Walker also invested in a factory to mass produce her products, which allowed her to produce more units at an even lower cost. 13
By that same year, Walker employed more than 3,000 workers. In addition to these workers, she trained around 20,000 “Walker Agents,” black saleswomen who went door‐to‐door pitching Walker’s products to consumers. Walker promised these women self‐empowerment through working for her. She trained them at “Lelia College” and each of them received a diploma upon completion of their training. One of Walker’s brochures encouraged black women to join her: “Open your own shop; secure prosperity and freedom.”14 Walker wanted to empower these women and encourage them to forge their own path to success. As she told them: “I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”15
In 1912, Walker’s marriage with C.J. fell apart. The two divorced a year later, but Madam C.J. Walker kept his name; at this point, it was synonymous with her brand.16 Walker’s business continued to expand and in 1913 she traveled to the Caribbean and Central America to promote her products. She eventually moved to Harlem with her daughter in 1916 and soon thereafter began construction on a $250,000 mansion in Irvington, New York, which the New York Times labeled as “one of the show pieces in the vicinity”—high praise considering she was neighbors with John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould.17
Walker’s business continued to grow, and her sales amounted to more than $500,000 annually by the time of her death in 1919.18 In her obituary, the New York Times reported that estimates of her “fortune have run up to $1,000,000” although Walker herself had said “two years ago that she was not yet a millionaire, but hoped to be some time, not that she wanted the money for herself, but for the good she could do with it.”19 Adjusted for inflation, in today’s terms Walker would have been worth between $8.9 and $10.7 million.20
But Walker should be remembered not just for her impressive entrepreneurial spirit but also for her generosity.21 Her philanthropy demonstrates the spillover effects from wealth creation. Because of her prosperous business, Walker donated thousands of dollars to African American schools and colleges, the NAACP, the black YMCA, and other charities.22 In her will, Walker bequeathed “two‐thirds of future net profits to charity, as well as thousands of dollars to various individuals and schools.”23
Walker was also an advocate of equal rights and justice for black Americans. In addition to being an active member of the NAACP, in 1917 she traveled with other Harlem leaders to speak with President Woodrow Wilson. The group’s goal was to convince Wilson, a well‐documented racist, that African Americans’ service in World War I should result in the federal government recognizing and defending their rights. Although they had been promised an audience on August 1, 1917, the delegation was “informed that Wilson was too busy to see them.”24 Despite being denied their audience with the president, the group did their best to get Congress to take up an anti‐lynching measure, albeit to no avail.
Madam C.J. Walker was a brilliant entrepreneur who literally went from rags to riches. Her story is an American success story, that is made even more impressive by the fact that she achieved all that she did against the backdrop of racial segregation and state‐sponsored discrimination. Walker identified a market that had been ignored by white businesses and discovered new and innovative ways to present her products to her consumers. Along the way she built a profitable company that made her a millionaire (or close to it). Most importantly to Walker, however, was that she achieved wealth while also empowering countless African American women by providing them with jobs and economic opportunities. After all, being a Walker Agent was a step up the socioeconomic ladder from being a washerwoman. Walker ultimately became a great philanthropist, further providing opportunities—especially educational opportunities—to women of color. Walker’s life demonstrates that even in a society where rights are not fully being protected, markets can serve as a liberating and empowering force.
For the complete story of Madam C.J. Waker’s life consult A’Lelia Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker (New York: Scribner, 2001). Republished as Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (New York: Scribner, 2020).
For more on Walker’s philanthropy consult Tyrone Freeman’s forthcoming book Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy During Jim Crow (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2020).