AN EXAMPLE FOR US ALL: MADAME C.J. WALKER

Madame C J Walker
When you hear of female pioneers, especially from the popular media, who do you think of? Now narrow that down to the field of cosmetics or personal care. Typical answers for the beauty world are those of Helena Rubinstein, Estee Lauder (real name: Josephine Ester Mentzer), Elizabeth Arden (real name: Florence Nightingale Graham). Truth be told, Lauder and Rubinstein were, well, bitches. In their lives, they did not embody the enlightenment of humanity that make up real heroes, real legends. Since I don't believe in criticizing without providing something towards a solution, luckily, I have an illustrious example: Madame C.J. Walker. For icing on the cake, it does relate to beauty & skincare.

I have known about Walker's achievements for some time, but had forgotten her name. And now that it's Black History Month, it has forced me to pull out some backbrain inventory and finally write about it (stuff you know but haven't really processed coherently, and it's definitely not a medical term!). Let's get started.

The Background
Walker (born Sarah Breedlove on the day before Christmas Eve in 1867, died 1919) was the 5th of 6 children. Her parents were both slaves. She was the first child born in her family immediately after the end of slavery. She did not have the ability to obtain a formal education, especially hampered by Louisiana's government withholding support for the education of blacks. Her parents died when she was 7. She then worked to support her siblings.

After a brief marriage (she was widowed at 20) she moved to St. Louis to be with her brothers. Here she worked as a launderer and earned just less than 2 dollars a day, enough to put her daughter through school. Madame C.J. Walker also pushed herself through self-education and improvement to the best or her abilities, attending night school and learning at the African Methodist Episcopal church (a Church with an awesome history, click here for the wiki on it).

She noticed her own hair loss near her temples (and that of other black women as well). She finally came up with a formula that supposedly restored the hair loss, strengthened hair, stopped dandruff and more. This is (as Oprah puts it) her "A-ha" moment. BTW, Madame Walker, was the first Oprah. She even had plans to build a school for girls in Africa, but sadly died before she could realize this. From here she went on to start the first female beauty empire with her company Madame C.J. Walker. First door-to-door then national. She started selling products targeted to the African community. A first on so many levels.


She had a deputy of agents not just selling her products, but also educating the public and customers on hygiene and a good appearance (um, I guess she was also the first Mary Kay). In fact, she believed, from her own experience, that with the difficulties facing young black women, if they took care of their appearance (skin, dress, and hair) they would find improved opportunities within the white dominated world. Her workforce employed African Americans and created entrepreneurs out of them. A typical agent of hers made more money than many white people. This, in a time where, as one can imagine, opportunities for blacks were severely limited to the lowest waged jobs. She built her own factory and started the first female beauty empire PERIOD. She went on to break barriers by building amazing properties such as the Villa Lewaro (pictured) in Long Island and drove her own car, illustrating the start of Blacks & Women breaking through socioeconomic barriers. According to various sources, she was the first self-made millionairess, black or white! These, however, are really the trivial points. Let's not get lost in glitz of these achievements.


Villa Lewaro


Mark Kay must have gotten this memo.

The Walker Theater in Indianapolis

Her REAL achievements
Madame C.J. Walker's brilliance and humanity shines in what she did with her money and resources. She knew this cardinal rule: supporting her community by giving back. She's helped countless people, especially helping African Americans in this most critical post-slavery timepoint. Here's a list of just some of the things she supported:
  • contributed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
  • donated generous amounts of money to retirement homes in St. Louis and Indianapolis
  • donated to the building fund for the YMCA of Indianapolis
  • funded scholarships for students of the Tuskegee Institute
  • donated $5,000 (we're talkin' 1920's money here) to the NAACP, making it the largest single gift to the organization at that time.
  • Supported the Bethune-Cookman College
  • Supporter of Churches
  • Her company eventually employed over 3,000 people at its max
  • In 1908 she opened a college in Pittsburgh to train her "hair culturists"
Trust me, the list goes on and on. My point is this: No matter what the industry, or how much one has achieved, it's always what you do with your resources (financial, intellectual, physical, whatever they may be). Madame Walker did not indulge in a fanciful lifestyle, she did not make money at the cost of integrity. She spent her time lecturing and protesting. A champion for the rights of Blacks. This is a person who has faced hardships that we couldn't fully understand or empathize with today. It always wakes me up to reality to see her ingenuity at work. I mean, just think about it. Anyone with a similar story today would still be regarded as a phenomenal success. Imagine doing it as an African American, living post-slavery, in the midst of segregation, being a woman, a single mother, and being widowed and divorced. Kinda gives us no excuse to complain about any barriers we face today; just find a way to break through them. Stories like Walkers are important in showing clearly that nothing is impossible.

In her own words it was her faith in God, creating quality products, and "honest business dealings that were her ingredients to success. (If these ingredients were a product on Truth in Skincare, I'd have to give it a THUMBS UP review! . . . .sorry, I'm a dork). But seriously, if companies followed these tenets they may actually feel guilty about some of their marketing efforts and empty product claims.

A quote about herself:
"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" - Madame Walker

So I did my part and brought you a heroine of mine. Now, I ask you, please take it a step further. Keep the stories of people like Madame C.J. Walker alive for more people and the next generations. I've compiled a list of books and sites that help to tell the story of this role model.


Some websites:
The Official Madame C.J. Walker Website at MadameCJWalker.com.

If you're every in Indiana and want to visit the Walker Theater (was built on her plans, but after her death. It is now a theater and is dedicated to promoting the visions of its namesake. It was fully restored in the 80's and is registered as a national historic place.

Here great-great granddaughter has written a biography about Walker. Her bestselling book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker , was a 2001 New York Times Notable Book. You can get a list of her speaking engagements here.

Some books for the younger generations:
Madam C. J. Walker--Entrepreneur by A’Lelia Bundles.
Vision of Beauty by Kathryn Lasky (Candlewick Press, 2000)
Madam C. J. Walker: Pioneer Businesswoman by Marian W. Taylor
(Chelsea House, 1994)
Madam C. J. Walker: Self-Made Millionaire by Patricia and Fredrick
McKissack (Enslow Publishers, 1992)
Mystery of the Dark Tower by Evelyn Coleman
American Girl History Mysteries (Pleasant Company Publications, 2000)

Click here for a list of books about Walker.

2 comments

goddess in the groove said...

Excellent blog on Madame CJ Walker. My daughter and I are researching her. Any idea where we could find a list of ingredients for her conditioners?

A'Lelia said...

Dr. David,
Although you wrote this two years ago, I am just seeing it. Thank goodness for archived blogs!
As Madam Walker's great-great-granddaughter and biographer, I very much appreciate your efforts at sharing Madam Walker's legacy and appreciate your mentioning my books.
Just thought you'd like to know that I'm now at work on a new biography of Walker's daughter--and my namesake--A'Lelia Walker. We also have an updated link for speeches about Madam Walker at http://www.madamcjwalker.com/events.aspx
A'Lelia Bundles
www.madamcjwalker.com

TRUTH IS REAL BEAUTY.