Madam C. J. Walker

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    Madam C. J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove; December 23, 1867, to May 25, 1919) was an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist. She is recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in America in the Guinness Book of World Records. Multiple sources mention that although other women (like Mary Ellen Pleasant) might have been the first, their wealth is not as well-documented.

    Walker made her fortune by developing and marketing a line of cosmetics and hair care products for black women through the business she founded. Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She became known also for her philanthropy and activism. She made financial donations to numerous organizations and became a patron of the arts. Ville Lewaro, Walker's lavish estate in Irvington, New York, served as a social gathering place for African American community. 

    At the time of her death, she was considered the wealthiest African American businesswoman and the wealthiest self-made black woman in America. Her name was a version of "Mrs. Charles Joseph Walker", after her third husband.

    Early Life
    Sarah Breedlove was born on December 23, 1867, close to Delta, Louisiana. Her parents were Owen and Minerva (Anderson) Breedlove. She had five siblings, who included an older sister, Louvenia, and four brothers: Alexander, James, Solomon, and Owen Jr. Her older siblings were enslaved by Robert W. Burney on his Madison Parish plantation. Sarah was the first child in her family born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Her mother died in 1872, likely from cholera (an epidemic traveled with river passengers up the Mississippi, reaching Tennessee and related areas in 1873). Her father remarried but died a year later.

    She was orphaned at the age of seven. Sarah moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, at the age of 10, where she lived with Louvenia and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell. She started working as a child as a domestic servant. 

    Marriage and Family
    In 1882, at the age of 14, Sarah married Moses McWilliams to escape abuse from her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell. Sarah and Moses had one daughter, Lelia McWilliams, who was born on June 6, 1885. When Moses died in 1887, Sarah was twenty and Leila was two. Sarah remarried in 1894 but left her second husband, John Davis, around 1903.

    In January 1906, Sarah married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman she had known in St. Louis, Missouri. Through this marriage, she became known as Madam C. J. Walker. The couple divorced in 1912; Charles died in 1926. Leila McWilliams adopted her stepfather's surname and became known as A'Lelia Walker.

    Career
    In 1888, Madam C. J. Walker and her daughter moved to St. Louis, where three of her brothers lived. Sarah found work as a laundress, earning barely more than a dollar a day. She was determined to make enough money to provide her daughter with formal education. During the 1880s, she lived in a community where Ragtime music was developed; she sang at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church and started to yearn for an educated life as she watched the community of women at her church.

    Sarah suffered severe dandruff and other scalp ailments, including baldness, due to skin disorders and the application of harsh products to cleanse hair and wash clothes. Other contributing factors to her hair loss included poor diet, illnesses, and infrequent bathing and hair washing during a time when most Americans lacked indoor plumbing, central heating, and electricity.

    Initially, Sarah learned about hair care from her brothers, who were barbers in St. Louis. Around the time of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World's Fair at St. Louis in 1904), she became a commission agent selling products for Annie Malone, an African American hair care entrepreneur, millionaire, and owner of the Poro Company. Sales at the exposition were a disappointment since the African-American community was largely ignored.

    While working for Malone, who would later become Walker's greatest rival in her hair care industry, Sarah began to take her new knowledge and develop her own product line. In July 1905, when she was 37 years old, Sarah and her daughter moved to Denver, Colorado, where she continued to sell products for Malone and develop her own hair care business. A controversy developed between Annie Malone and Sarah because Malone accused Sarah of stealing her formula, a mixture of petroleum jelly and sulfur that had been in use for a hundred years.

    Following her marriage to Charles walker in 1906, Sarah became known as Madam C. J. Walker. She marketed herself as an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams. Her husband, who was also her business partner, provided advice on advertising and promotion; Sarah sold her products door to door, teaching other black women how to groom and style their hair.

    In 1906, Walker put her daughter in charge of the mail-order operation in Denver while she and her husband traveled through the southern and eastern United States to expand the business. In 1908, Walker and her husband relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they opened a beauty parlor and established Lelia College to train her "hair culturists". As an advocate of black women's economic independence, she opened training programs in the "Walker System" for her national network of licensed sales agents who earned healthy commissions (Michaels PhD. 2015).

    After Walker closed the business in Denver in 1907, A'lelia ran the day-to-day operations from Pittsburg. In1910, Walker established a new base in Indianapolis. A'lelia also persuaded her mother to establish an office and beauty salon in New York City's growing Harlem neighborhood in 1913, which became a center for African American culture.

    In 1910, Walker relocated her businesses to Indianapolis, where she established the headquarters for the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She initially purchased a house and factory at 640 North West Street. Walker later built a factory, hair salon, and beauty school to train her sales agents, and added a laboratory to help with research. She also assembled a staff that included Freeman Ransom, Robert Lee Brokenburr, Alice Kelly, and Marjorie Joyner, among others, to assist in managing the growing company. Many of her company's employees, including those in key management and staff positions, were women.

    Walker's method of grooming was designed to promote hair growth and to condition the scalp through the use of her products. The system included a shampoo, a pomade stated to help hair grow, strenuous brushing, and applying iron combs to hair; the method claimed to make lackluster and brittle hair become soft and luxuriant. Walker's product line had several competitors. Similar products were produced in Europe and manufactured by other companies in the United States, which included her major rivals, Annie Turnbo Malone's Poro System from which she derived her original formula, and later, Sarah Spencer Washington's Apex System.

    Between 1911 and 1919, during the height of her career, Walker and her company employed several thousand women as sales agents for its products. By 1917, the company claimed to have trained nearly 20,000 women. Dressed in a characteristic uniform of white shirts and black skirts and carrying black satchels, they visited houses around the United States and in the Caribbean offering Walker's hair pomade and other products packaged in tin containers carrying her image. Walker understood the power of advertising and brand awareness. Heavy advertising, primarily in African-American newspapers and magazines, in addition to Walker's frequent travels to promote her products, helped make Walker and her products well known in the United States.

    In addition to training in sales and grooming, Walker showed other black women how to budget, build their own businesses, and encouraged them to become financially independent. In 1917, inspired by the model of the National Association of Colored Women, Walker began organizing her sales agents into state and local clubs. The result was the establishment of the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents (predecessor to the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culturists Union of America).

    Its first annual conference convened in Philadelphia during the summer of 1917 with 200 attendees. The conference is believed to have been among the first national gatherings of women entrepreneurs to discuss business and commerce. During the convention, Walker gave prizes to women who had sold the most products and brought in the newest sales agents. She also rewarded those who made the largest contributions to charities in their communities.

    Walker's name became even more widely known by the 1920s, after her death, as her company's business market expanded beyond the United States to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica.

    References;
    1. Madam C. J. Walker

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