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Meet Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made African-American woman millionaire

Madam C.J. Walker was born near Delta, La., to former slaves in 1867.

A contemporary of beauty icons Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, Madam C.J. Walker started her business in 1906 and managed to become the first self-made African-American woman millionaire – who didn’t inherit a fortune from either her father or husband – in an era when segregation was legal.

The value of her estates, jewelry, cars and other personal effects and real estate investments was between $700,000 and $800,000. If Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, had sold her business on the day she died in 1919, it would have been worth between $1 million and $2 million. (In today’s dollars that translates to over $14.5 million.)

And today the Madam C.J. Walker beauty products – including shampoos, conditioners, and other hair styling treatments – are sold exclusively at beauty retail giant Sephora.

Walker was born just two years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and witnessed her family who were sharecroppers in the South face economic exploitation.

Madam C.J. Walker. (Source: Madam Walker Family Archives/A'Lelia Bundles)

“Like so many, she kind of saw the lack of opportunity in the South growing up and decided she wanted more for herself,” says Dominique Jean-Louis, the project historian for the current Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow exhibition at the New-York Historical Society which features Madam C.J. Walker.

She moved out to Denver in 1906 from St. Louis where her brothers worked as barbers and began working in hair care. She traveled across the Midwest selling her products and growing her business, and established the company’s headquarters in Indianapolis in 1910.

Walker developed a shampoo and an ointment called Madam Walker’s wonderful hair grower. “There were few products on the market for black women. This was revolutionary at the time,” says A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter.

When Walker opened her salon in Harlem in 1913, it became a success.

“This is right as Harlem is becoming a neighborhood and a center of black life. [Her] timing couldn’t have been better. [Her] location couldn’t have been better,” says Jean-Louis.

Her salon also opened up opportunity to local African-American women to find a job in a new industry.

“As these women are coming into Harlem, looking to get their hair done, [they also found opportunity at Madam C.J. Walker’s salon] to break into new industries besides… domestic work and laundry where the majority of black women are working in this time period,” says Jean-Louis.

Madam C.J. Walker was one of the few black women who drove in the early 20th century. She was the first self-made black American woman millionaire. Credit: Madam Walker Family Archives/ A'Lelia Bundles

Helping the local job market

Madam C.J. Walker had a significant impact on women who worked for her – especially when it came to earning potential. Most women working as domestics were pulling in about $5 to $8 a month in Harlem in the early 20th century, whereas the earning potential for a beautician was $3 to $5 a week.

Bundles says Walker was a woman ahead of her time. “She was visionary about not only creating a product, but understanding how to market that product, how to motivate her sales agents. How to motivate women, how to empower women and help them support their families.”

Walker sought to improve the lives of women around her through her products.

“These were people who cared about their appearance and in many cases, it impacted their earning potential; if you looked more presentable you could get a job as a secretary instead of [as a] laundress,” Jean-Louis says.

Walker’s success can also be attributed to the fact that racial pride was a factor in how she marketed her products.

“She was really insistent upon this idea that African-American…hair was beautiful and should be cared for and it should be considered special and worth celebrating,” Jean-Louis says. “Some of that consciousness was part of her business model, of going up against these white conventional ideals of beauty. She really celebrated what African-American presentation can look like and taking pride in that.”

Her role as an activist

Walker’s products filled a need for women who didn’t have many choices. Bundles believes that they were a means to an end. Her real ambition was to help black women become financially independent.

Credit: New-York Historical Society

“She was an orphan at 7, married at 14 to get a home away from an abusive brother-in-law, mother at 17, a widow at 20. A poor washer woman with little education, she knew there were thousands of women like her,” says Bundles. “She saw that by having your own income, you could change your life. And she used her money and influence as a philanthropist and a patron of the arts and a political activist in support of the anti-lynching movement.”

Walker gave money to institutions and leaders, including Booker T. Washington to help with his attempts to get black businesses underway, and the NAACP. She supported groups that were looking to counteract the economic limitations of segregation.

“Her role as as an activist really can’t be overstated in helping those early civil rights organizations get off the ground,” says Jean-Louis.

By the time Walker passed away in 1919, her assistants had trained thousands of black women who were then earning $20 to $100 a week. That was a big deal for these women who otherwise would have been maids and sharecroppers. Thanks to Walker, they had enough money to buy homes.

After her death, Walker’s family continued to run the business and it had its heyday in the 1950s. After the board of trustees sold the trademark in the 1980s, the brand was no longer a real player in the hair care market.

About six years ago, billionaire Richelieu Dennis, founder of Sundial Brands, which makes skin care and hair care products, bought the trademark and is now running the Madam C.J. Walker beauty brand as a division of Sundial, which was acquired by Unilever in 2017.

While the Walker family does not have a share in the profits from sales of the Madam C.J. Walker product line today, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter does get compensation as the brand historian. Its availability at Sephora has reinforced Walker’s enduring legacy as a business leader far ahead of her time.

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