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She is known as the first female self-made millionaire in the United States. Her name is Madam C. J. Walker. She was able to make her fortune by producing a line of hair care products specifically designed for black women. Walker was motivated to create special hair products after she experienced scalp problems. This led her to the creation of a program for hair care she called the “Walker System.”
Walker started her business empire by selling directly to black women. Then she devised a way for others to hand-sell her products. Walker would refer to the people selling her products as beauty culturalists. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, she was the first self-made female millionaire in the United States.
Sarah Breedlove aka Madam C. J. Walker was born in Delta, Louisiana on December 23, 1867. Her mother's name was Minerva and her father's name was Owen. She had five siblings and was the first member of her family born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. In 1872, her mother died and from what those around her believed to have been cholera. Her father quickly remarried. Unfortunately, he died a year later. At the age of seven, she was an orphan. She then moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi where she lived with her sister and brother-in-law. This was a time when she worked as a domestic servant. She only had three months of formal education. This happened during the Sunday school literacy lessons she took at the church she attended.
Marriage and Family
In 1882, Walker married Moses McWilliams when she was 14 years old. This was done to get away from her brother-in-law's abuse. The couple had a daughter they called A'Lelia. Moses McWilliams died in 1887. Their daughter was two years old. Walker married again in 1894 to John Davis and left him in 1903. In 1906, she married Charles Walker.
It was common for black women during this time to suffer a variety of scalp ailments. Walker was no exception. She had to deal with baldness because of skin disorders and severe dandruff. There were only harsh products available for cleaning hair and washing clothes. She lived during a time when most Americans didn't have electricity, central heating, or indoor plumbing. There were common illnesses, poor diets as well as infrequent hair washing and bathing.
Hair Care Products
Walker's brothers were barbers in St. Louis. They taught her about hair care. She sold hair care products for Annie Malone during the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Malone was a very successful African-American entrepreneur who owned the Poro Company. Walker learned a lot about the hair care business during this time. Walker and her daughter moved to Denver, Colorado in 1905.
During this time, Walker sold products form Malone but also worked to create her own hair-care company. It was during this time that Malone accused Walker of stealing one of her formulas. It was a mixture of sulfur and petroleum jelly that had been used by women for over a hundred years. This accusation ended their business relationship.
In 1906, she married Charles Walker and began referring to herself as Madam C. J. Walker. She marketed herself as someone who sold cosmetic creams and was an independent hairdresser. Her husband was a businessman who gave her advice about promotion and advertising. He was also her business partner. Walker began selling her products door-to-door. She would spend time showing other black women how to properly groom as well as style their hair. Walker's business was a success. She made her daughter responsible for the company's mail-order operation located in Denver. She and her husband then spent their time visiting several places around the south and eastern part of the United States to grow their company.
Walker and her husband moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1908. It was here they established Lelia College. It was designed to train hair culturists. They also opened a beauty parlor. Walker was dedicated to promoting the economic independence of black women. She established a training program based on what she called “the Walker System.” It was designed to help her develop a national network of licensed sales agents. The system was very successful. It made it possible for the women who sold Walker's products to earn a good amount of money on commissions.
Walker closed her Denver operation in 1907. Walker's daughter convinced her to have a beauty salon and office in New York City's Harlem neighborhood. This also became very successful. Walker relocated her business in 1910 to Indianapolis. This is where she built the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She built a hair salon, factory, a beauty school to train her sales agents as well as a laboratory for cosmetic research. Many of the company's employees and several of those in key staff and management positions were females.
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Between 1911 and 1919, Walker and her company had reached a level of success nobody thought possible. The company employed several thousand women. Most of them worked as sales agents selling the company's products. Over 20,000 women had been trained by the company in 1917. All the sales agents wore the same uniform. It consisted of white shirts and black skirts. Each of them would carry a black satchel. The sale agents would offer products in tin containers with Walker's image on them.
Walker knew the power of advertising. She would run several types of advertising about her products in African-American magazines and newspapers. Walker spent quite a bit of her time traveling and promoting her products. She began to organize her sales agents into local and state clubs. In 1917, The National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents held its first conference in Philadelphia. There were over 200 people who attended it. At the convention, Walker awarded prizes to those who sold the most products as well as those who brought in the most new sales agents. Awards were also given to those who gave the most to charities in their local communities.
Walker was able to raise funds in the Indianapolis's black community to have a branch of the YMCA open there. She also gave money for scholarship funds associated with the Tuskegee Institute. Walker also regularly gave money to Daytona Education and Industrial School for Negro Girls, Indianapolis's Flanner House, The Palmer Memorial Institute, the Industrial Institute, and Haines Normal institute in Georgia, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and several others.
Walker was embraced by the black press and became very well-known in the black community. Her success made it possible for her to live in a townhouse in the wealthy part of Manhattan. She had a home in the country she called Villa Lewaro. It was located at Irvington-on-Hudson and was designed by a black architect named Vertner Tandy.
Death And Legacy
On May 25, 1919, Madam C.J. Walker died at her country home located at Irvington-on-Hudson. She was 51 years old and hypertension was the cause of death. At the time of her death, Walker was the wealthiest African-American female in the United States. She has always been remembered as a pioneer in female African-American entrepreneurship. Walker inspired thousands with her message of financial independence as well as philanthropy and business practices.
In 1987, Stanley Nelson produced a documentary of Walker's life called Two Dollars and a Dream. She is also the subject of a television series called Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker. Octavia Spencer portrays Madam C. J. Walker.
© 2020 Readmikenow
Readmikenow (author) on August 22, 2020:
Flourish, thanks. I agree. I think she should be an inspiration for everyone.
FlourishAnyway from USA on August 22, 2020:
This is a very inspirational lady—gutsy and determined to make it in The business world although there were headwinds making it challenging.