Madame C.J. Walker: A shining example of economic self determination

| March 4, 2014
Brenda Robinson

Brenda Robinson


There are numerous African Americans to whom a tribute is appropriate and Black History Month only permits time to honor a few. Madame C.J. Walker is one of the many individuals we wish to highlight.

She was born Dec. 23, 1867, only two years after slavery was abolished. She was only nine years old when the Jim Crow laws (legalization of racial segregation) were initially enacted and she had been dead 46 years when all of the Jim Crow laws were deemed illegal. Despite the turbulent years of racism and sexism, in which Walker lived, she managed to shine as an entrepreneur, civil rights activist and a champion for black women through her hair products and equality for females. Further, she recognized the negative impact of sexism on all women and worked to override this practice.

Madame C.J. Walker

Madame C.J. Walker (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919) was the first female self-made millionaire in America.

Born Sarah Breedlove, she developed a scalp disorder that caused her to lose her hair. She tried to heal her scalp with home and store bought remedies, but with no success. She obtained a job as a salesperson with a successful black female, Annie Malone, hair care entrepreneur. Breedlove’s husband encouraged her to develop her own treatment product and helped her with marketing. He also suggested she change her name to Madame C.J. Walker and her unstoppable career began.

Perhaps, there really is worth to the sentiments that Jim Crow and segregation helped black people become successful. This view is held because doing the Jim Crow era black businesses thrived, black neighborhoods were comprised of all economic levels which made for communities with viable resources. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, factory workers and laborers resided in same neighborhoods and the “strong helped the weak.” The concept, “the white man’s ice water is colder” had no legitimacy because the white man’s ice water was off limits. Thus, Walker’s business, and other black businesses prospered.

She traveled throughout the U.S., selling her products, while her daughter ran the mail order portion of the business, out of Denver. Walker opened Lelia Colleg in Pittsburgh, in 1908, and trained “hair culturists.” In 1910, she moved to Indianapolis, established her headquarters and built a factory.

As an entrepreneur, Walker understood the importance of marketing and thus made certain her potential customers were well versed on her products. She flooded the U.S. with newspaper print ads and “door-to-door” verbal and written promotions. Graduates from Walker’s school were “living witnesses” to the quality of her products. Walker’s lavish style was indicative of other successful black entrepreneurs. Reportedly, Walker moved into her New York estate, “Irvington-on-Hudson” in 1917. Walker’s estate was designed by the first licensed black architect, Vertner Tandy, in New York state and he was also a founding member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Wallker and Tandy’s success is another indication of how black people “rolled” during the Jim Crow era.

Let us not neglect Walker’s commitment to civil rights. She was active with the NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Reportedly, she donated money to the NAACP, YMCA, black schools, organizations, orphanages and retirement homes. She supported legislation to made lynching a federal crime She worked to obtain full respect for black World War I. veterans

Through her lectures, Walker encouraged women of all races to become entrepreneurs. Her wealth motivated and empowered women.

History reveals Walker, at her death, was considered to be the wealthiest African American woman in America and the first “self-made” female American millionaire. Her accomplishments did not go unnoticed. Recognitions included induction into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame at the museum of Science and Industry in Chicago in 1990. Other recognitions included the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Senaca Falls, New York, the National Cosmetology Hall of Fame and the National Direct Sales Hall of Fame. In 1998, the United States Postal Service, as part of its Black Heritage Series, issued the Madame C.J. Walker Commemorative stamp.

Walker died relatively young at 51 years old but, in a relatively short period of time and against all odds, what a remarkable life, what a spirit of giving, what a commitment to self-sufficiency, what a testimony for black business ownership. When we are tempted to forsake black businesses and declare the “white man’s ice water is always colder,” let us reflex on Madame C.J. Walker and proclaim, “We now know better and will hereby do better,” both in providing excellent services and products and supporting black entrepreneurship.

Brenda Robinson is an NNPA Emory O. Jackson award-winning columnist for Frost Illustrated.

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Brenda Robinson is an NNPA Emory O. Jackson award-winning columnist for Frost Illustrated.

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