Black History Spotlight: Madam C. J. Walker

Here at Breedlove Market, we gain inspiration from the rich history of successful black entrepreneurs, activists, artists, and creators that overcame unimaginable circumstances. Their ability to overcome systemic racism and constructed inequity guides a path forward for everyone today. Despite the work put in by these individuals, they frequently are not taught in traditional educational systems. Without teaching the success of our past, we can't expect success in the future. With that in mind, we want to highlight 28 historical figures, one for each day of Black History Month. We hope that their inspirational true-life stories will inspire you to also chase after your dreams.

Madam C. J. Walker
Madam C. J. Walker

First, we have Madam C. J. Walker (she was partial to the inspiration for the name of Breedlove Market)! Read more below to learn exactly how she inspired the name "Breedlove Market."

The Guinness Book of World Records records Madam C. J. Walker as the first female self-made millionaire in America, although, multiple other women were millionaires before Walker, their wealth is not as well-documented.

Walker created her fortune by creating the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company that developed and marketed beauty cosmetics and hair care products for black women.

She was born 'Sarah Breedlove', the youngest of six children in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. She was the first in the family to be born into freedom due to the Emancipation Proclamation. Walker became an orphan at seven and married at 14 to escape abuse.

Walker moved herself and her two-year-old daughter to St. Louis after the death of her first husband, initially finding work as a laundress earning less than a dollar a day. Eventually, she started working as a commission agent selling hair-care products for Annie Malone, owner of the Poro Company.

Walker began developing her own product line while continuing to work with the Poro Company, causing eventual controversy with Malone accusing Walker of stealing her formula.

Madam CJ Walker Pomade
Madam C. J. Walker Hair Pomade

At the height of her career, Walker and her company employed several thousand women, estimated at potentially up to 20,000, as sales agents. These agents visited houses around the US and the Caribbean offering Walker's hair and cosmetics products.

As her wealth and notoriety grew, she became more active in activism, politics, and philanthropy. She addressed the annual gathering of the National Negro Business League, declaring "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." The following year, Walker was invited back as a keynote speaker.

Her involvement in political matters grew after her move to New York. She participated in several lectures at conventions sponsored by black institutions. She moved in the same circles as other prominent black activists of the time, including Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and W. E. B. Du Bois. She also joined the executive committee of the New York chapter of the NAACP. While she was on the executive committee, the NAACP organized the Silent Protest Parade on New York City's Fifth Avenue, drawing more than 8,000 people to protest a riot in East Saint Louis. Along with organizing the protest, Walker joined a group of other black leaders who visited the White House and presented a petition favoring federal anti-lynching legislation.

Walker pledged $5,000 (~$77,000 adjusted for inflation) in contributions to the NAACP's anti-lynching fun. It was the largest gift from a single individual that the NAACP had ever received at the time. She helped raise funds to establish a Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis, contributed towards scholarship funds to the Tuskegee Institute, donated to organizations like Indianapolis's Flanner House, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Mary McLeod Bethune's Daytona Education and Industrial School for Negro Girls, the Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina and the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Georgia.

In 1919, Walker passed away from kidney failure and complications of hypertension. She was 51 years old. Her remains are interred in Woodlawn Cemetry in the Bronx, New York City.

At the time of her death, she was estimated to be worth between half a million and a million dollars. Her obituary in The New York Times stated, "she said herself two years ago [in 1917] 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."

Madam CJ Walker Walker Theatre Center
Walker Theatre Center

In the documentation of her legacy, there are two properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places: Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York, and the Madame Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis. Villa Lewaro was sold in 1932 and the National Trust for Historic Preservation has designated the property a National Treasure. The Madam Walker Theatre Center is the old Walker Manufacturing Company headquarters building. It was renamed in 1927 and included the company's offices and factory, a theater, beauty school, hair salon, barbershop, restaurant, drugstore, and a ballroom. It's been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980.

If you'd like to learn more about Madam C. J. Walker, her life, and her legacy, we recommend the following sources that we used to create this post:

  • Guinness World Records

  • Indiana Historical Society