MADAME C.J. WALKER
Sarah Breedlove was a woman who turned her inventive mind and excellent business sense into a million dollar com¬ pany improving not only the quality of her own life, but also that of many African- Americans.
Breedlove’s parents were both recently freed slaves who died when she was only five. She then left the Louisiana plantation where she was bom and lived with her sister until marrying a man named McWilliams when she was 14. She lost him as well — to a lynch mob —- when she was only 20.
Left alone to raise her young daughter ATelia, she went to work as a washerwoman, and like other women, sacrificed her health to take good care of her child. Poverty and bad nutrition, combined with traditional “wrap and twist” hair straightening methods, made her hair begin to thin.
Breedlove began experimenting with methods to stop hair loss and one night had a dream in which an old man gave her the ingredients for a potion that not only
stopped balding, but quickened regrowth. By the time she met her second husband, the newspaper man C.J. Walker, Sarah Breedlove and her relatives were already filling jars with her Wonderful Hair Grow¬ er and selling them. It was Walker who taught her the advertising and mail order techniques that changed her small business into a million dollar success.
Madame C.J. Walker went on to fashion hair care products particularly designed for black hair. She developed the hot comb and promoted the idea that beauty was derived from cleanliness and not from racial qualities.
She opened her first beau¬ ty school, the Lelia College, in Pittsburgh in 1908, and managed a staff of door-to- door agents who began to earn up to $1,000 a day in commissions. By 1919, 25,000 agents worked for her. They taught women how to take pride in their beautiful hair and skin while encouraging them to start their own beauty shops.
Walker’s success allowed her to send A’lelia to Knoxville College and to begin focusing on her own education. With inde¬ pendent tutors, Madame Walker concentrat¬ ed for the first time on the luxuries of a for¬ mal education.
Her respect for higher learn¬ ing would ultimately lead her to donate money to several institutions and leaders, including Tuskegee Institute (see no. 24) and Frederick Douglass (see no. 14).Throughout her life, Walker asserted that if a woman could run her own busi¬ ness, she could certainly manage her own life.
Putting hundreds of women to work in her company and in their own beauty shops, Walker made sure that her success promoted the success of all women looking for means to manage their own lives. Her example taught women how to pursue busi¬ ness for themselves, appreciate their own beauty, and take responsibility for their own education.