I have just been reading the extraordinary story of Madam CJ Walker, one of the first pioneers and purveyors of products for black hair and hair loss in the early 20th century. Not just the first American millionairess entrepreneur, but the first black American millionairess entrepreneur.
Born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, CJ was the daughter of freed slaves, but who found herself orphaned by the age of 7, married by the age of 14 (to escape her brother-in-law’s violence) and widowed by the age of 20 with a three year old daughter, Leila. Not the most promising of starts. She moved to St Louis to be near her four brothers who had all found work there. Careerwise she progressed from cotton picker as a child to washer-woman as an adult, earning only $1.50 a day, but scrimping and saving to put her daughter through school and give her the education that Sarah never had.
Perhaps as a result of all the deprivation, hard work and stress, Sarah developed a scalp condition and her hair began to fall out.
She experimented with many homemade remedies and patented products, including those made by another black woman entrepreneur named Annie Malone, with limited success. In 1905 Sarah moved to Denver to act as a sales agent for Malone, then married her second husband, Charles Joseph Walker, a St. Louis newspaperman. After adopting the name ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, which she presumably felt sounded more businesslike, she founded her own business aided by Leila and began selling Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula, which she claimed had been revealed to her in a dream. The product quickly took off, so presumably was superior to any other for black hair on the market at the time, though it also became her mission to create employment for as many of her black sisters as possible and CJ was an early civil rights activist.
To promote her products, Madam C.J. Walker, supported by her husband, then embarked on an 18-month long tour around the largely black South and Southeast selling door-to-door and demonstrating her scalp treatments in lodges and churches as she thought up sales strategies. In 1908, she temporarily moved her base to Pittsburgh where she opened the Lelia College to train Walker “hair culturists.” So her business model was almost a precursor to the Avon lady! By 1910, she had constructed her own factory in Indianapolis. In her own words quoted in 1912: “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.”
Eventually CJ Walker boasted 20,000 black female sales agents/demonstrators and even set up a union for them called ‘Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America’, holding a convention in Philadelphia in 1917, which must rank as one of the first national meetings of businesswomen in the US. Not only was the convention an opportunity for Walker to reward her agents for their business success, but to promote their political activism. “This is the greatest country under the sun,” she told them. “But we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice. We should protest until the American sense of justice is so aroused that such affairs as the East St. Louis riot be forever impossible.”
Later CJ Walker travelled to a number of other countries with the aim of expanding internationally.
However Madam Walker still found time to enjoy her success by constructing a beautiful white mansion to her own design on the ‘millionaire’s row’ to be found along the Hudson River and counting Rockerfeller as a neighbour, a mansion which still stands today, with a swimming pool and plenty of garaging for her cars.
Sadly for CJ, she was not to live long to enjoy it, dying at only 51 in 1919. Her daughter Leila (now A’Leila) took over the business as President and also enjoyed life as an acclaimed literary hostess, before her own premature death at the age of 46 in 1931.
CJ Walker hair products were later resurrected in the early 80s by black hair industry expert Raymond L Randolph who managed to buy the stock from the trustees. He restored her picture to the jars and developed new products for the range based on his own late 20th century expertise. Since he died in 2002, the company has gone from strength to strength and has also reinstated its distribution system of agents, so beloved of CJ Walker.
For the record, although often cited as the inventor of straighteners, the real CJ Walker was completely against the straightening of black hair and would doubtless be against relaxant too had it been around in her times, as she believed artificial straightening was damaging and contributed to black hair and scalp problems. Her philosophy was to keep the hair in as good a condition as possible with good quality oils and conditioners and not to allow the scalp to get dirty or too dry.