February is Black History Month. I am sure you’ve probably seen things about it. So because of that and because I am going to be a history teacher, today’s post will be a lesson in history. This is one of my favorite historical figures, and I hope you learn something!
Sarah Breedlove was born on December 23, 1867, to Owen and Minerva Breedlove. The Breedloves were slaves on Robert Burney’s plantation. At this point, you’re probably saying “Whoa whoa whoa! The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in 1863, and the 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. Why are you saying the Breedlove family are still slaves?” And you’d be right. Legally, there weren’t supposed to be slaves. However, there wasn’t really any enforcement of the law, especially in the South. So, yes they weren’t technically slaves, but nobody was going to really run them off and tell them they were wrong. Sarah’s mom passed away in 1872, and her father passed away a few years later.
This left her orphaned by the age of 7. She moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi to live with her sister and her husband at the age of ten. She found work as a housemaid, or a domestic. In 1882, she married Moses McWilliams. She was only fourteen. (Can you imagine that?!) Moses died in 1887. Sarah was only twenty years old and was left to care for her two-year-old, Lelia. After Moses passed away, she and her daughter moved to Saint Louis, Missouri. There, Sarah worked as a laundress to earn her living. While there, she started losing her hair and having other hair ailments that were common for African-Americans at the time and still may be an issue today. Her brothers who lived in Saint Louis worked as barbers started helping her take care of her hair. She started selling hair-care products for Annie Turnbo Malone, owner of the Poro Company, a company selling hair-care products for African-American women. She also started improving on these products and making her own.
She remarried in 1894 to John Davis, but she divorced her husband in 1903 and relocated to Denver, Colorado in 1905. Shortly after, in January 1906, she married for the third and final time to a man named Charles Joseph Walker. She took on the name for herself Madam C. J. Walker. She also started making and selling her own independent hair line. She sold her homemade products from door to door. Her husband was her business partner, and she set up her company in Denver. He was formerly part of a newspaper company, and was able to help get her products in the press for African-Americans.
Eventually, Sarah’s daughter Lelia was given control of the company while the Walker couple began traveling and promoting the business. They settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1908 where they set up another branch of the business. They also established a college there to help educate her workers about her new methods.
After two years in Pittsburgh, Walker and her daughter moved to Indianapolis to set up a headquarters there. Sometime around this point, Charles and Walker split up. She wanted to expand her business, but her husband thought she was fine how she was. (“End of discussion.” “Fine. End of relationship.”) So she went with just her daughter. Together, they set up a factory, hair salon, beauty school, and laboratory. While in Indianapolis, she also made the largest donation by an African-American in contribution for a YMCA. She was philanthropic in other ways as well, including helping fund scholarships. In addition to all the services her company provided, she also helped her workers budget, build their own businesses, and become financially stable. She also held conferences for her employees, giving them incentives for selling the products. The Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company rivaled the Poro Company in sales, who Walker used to work for. During this time, she also traveled to places in the Caribbean to promote her products for the women who lived there.
She then joined her daughter in New York in 1916 (who had moved there in 1913), leaving the Indianapolis branch open. She joined the NAACP and when World War I came to the United States, she was a leader of the Circle for Negro War Relief.
On May 25, 1919, at the age of fifty-one, this remarkable woman passed away. Her will decreed that most of her profits and earnings be donated to charity. She is remembered as America’s first female self-made millionaire. The Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company helped pave the way for other personal beauty companies, like Avon and Mary Kay. She influenced the city of Indianapolis, and helped a plan a building downtown. The Madam C. J. Walker building houses the Walker Theater and was part of the original factory. Her legacy lives on in other ways as well. In 2016, Sundial brand, in collaboration with Sephora, launched “Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture” which uses all-natural ingredients for all hair types. She helped pave the way for understanding and taking care of black women’s hair. Before this, women, including Walker, started losing their hair and acquiring dandruff because these women did not really know how to care for their hair. Madam C. J. Walker is amazing. She didn’t let any man stop her, and she revolutionized her culture. She deserves to be remembered every month, not just in February.
Let me know if you have any thoughts or comments!