Madam C.J. WalkerJul 21st, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Business
1867-1919 Madam C.J. Walker invented and marketed a line of hair and skin-care products specially designed for the needs of black women. She and her company became fabulously successful, employing thousands, and inspiring women of all races to greater achievements in business and philanthropy.
Hard Work and a Dream
Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to two former slaves and sharecroppers on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana. A yellow fever epidemic killed her parents when she was seven, and she and her sister fled to escape the epidemic and failing crops to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they worked the cotton fields. Walker married at age 14, largely to escape the abuse of her sister’s husband, and her daughter Lelia was born in 1885. Her husband died (lynched by a white mob according to some accounts) two years later, and Walker moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where her four brothers worked as barbers. There, she toiled for 18 years as a cook and laundress, earning enough to educate Lelia at public school and college. During this time she also became involved with the National Association of Colored Women and the St. Paul American Methodist Episcopal Church, broadening her horizons.
In the early 1890s, Walker developed a scalp ailment that caused her to lose much of her hair. She experimented widely with homemade cures and commercial hair products, including those marketed by black entrepreneur Annie Malone. In 1905, she then worked as a sales agent for Malone’s company in Denver. By Walker’s own account, her breakthrough preparation came to her in a dream, in which a “…big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair.” Regardless of its origins, the product was successful enough to cause her own hair to regenerate quickly, proof enough of its effectiveness. She created a commercial version, the “Walker Method,” which included a shampoo, a pomade “Hair Grower,” vigorous brushing, and heated iron combs, and was reputed to make lusterless hair shiny and improve the health of hair and scalp. It proved to be immediately popular with Walker’s circle of acquaintances and beyond.
Walker married again in 1906, to a newspaperman named Charles Joseph (C.J.) Walker. From him, she took her business name to which she added “Madam,” as well as his insights and instincts for marketing. Together, they advertised in black newspapers, and launched an automobile tour to promote the product. Walker traveled for over a year through the African American population centers of the south and southeast, selling door-to-door, speaking at churches and conventions, and refining sales and marketing techniques. Daughter Lelia took responsibility for running the business, assisted by other black women. When her husband wanted to stop growing the enterprise, claiming Walker was too ambitious, she divorced him instead and kept working. The company moved its base to Pittsburgh in 1908, and established Lelia College to train “hair culturists” in support of the corporate mission. Then in early 1910, Walker built a five-story factory in Indianapolis, Indiana, then the nation’s largest inland manufacturing center at the nexus of eight major railroad lines.
The combination of high-quality products geared to the needs of black women, a door-to-door sales strategy with highly trained field representatives, and Walker’s own constant marketing presence proved to be phenomenally effective. The company developed multiple product lines, employed thousands of women as “Walker Agents” organized into regional units, and Walker expanded her domain to include the Caribbean and Latin America. She also promulgated a strict code of hygiene for all sales representatives that presaged the development of state standards for cosmetologists.
The Walkers began a shift east to New York in 1913, when Lelia (by then known as A’Lelia) moved to a townhouse designed by the first registered black architect, Vertner Tandy, in Harlem. She was followed in 1916 by Walker herself, who would continue to oversee the main operations in Indianapolis from her own base in Manhattan, where she became actively involved in Harlem’s political and social scene. She became active in the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement after the horrible race riots of 1917 in East St. Louis, Illinois, and was one of the largest financial contributors to that and other programs. As her business grew, Walker tied her business and social concerns together by awarding prizes at annual conventions to the sales units that gave the most to charity, as well as those that sold the most merchandise. She constantly encouraged her employees’ political activism and sense of social justice, while setting an example through her actions.
Walker moved to a palatial estate, Villa Lewaro, built at a cost of over $250,000 in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, in 1917. Her neighbors included the famously successful industrialists Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. But Walker was one of the first American women of any race or social background to become a millionaire through her own efforts. Asked for the secret to her success, Walker said: “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it – for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.” Unfortunately, her dedication contributed to her decline as well as her success: she was warned by physicians to reduce her load because of hypertension, but continued at her usual pace. Walker died on May 25, 1919, from hypertension, kidney failure, and complications. She was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.
Through hard work, diligence, and commitment, she played a decisive part in creating the role model of a successful black woman entrepreneur, philanthropist, and advocate for social justice. She left a large part of her estate to philanthropic causes, and the factory building in Indianapolis today houses a cultural arts center, a beauty salon, and organizational and professional offices.