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Dream Come True: Madame CJ Walker

Updated on March 11, 2016

Madame C.J. Walker

Madame C.J. Walker
Madame C.J. Walker | Source

From Wash Tubs to 5th Avenue

Dream Come True: Madame C.J. Walker

Sarah’s hair was falling out. That’s how it all began; Sarah’s hair started falling out, and the young washerwoman was desperate. She prayed to God for a miracle. It came to her in a dream, a message that would save her from disfigurement.

And just like that, Sarah went from being an overworked washerwoman to America’s first black female millionaire.

It was a long road to get there though; born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana on December 23, 1867, she was the very first in a family of sharecroppers to be born free. Being free didn’t make life much easier for a young black girl in those days, and Sarah was orphaned by the time she was seven, was married at fourteen, had her daughter Lelia when she was seventeen, and was widowed at twenty when a mob lynched her first husband. Wanting to get away from the violence, Sarah packed up her young daughter and moved to St. Louis, where for eighteen years she supported them both by working as a washerwoman. There she joined a church whose congregation included many of the city’s elite black women who taught Sarah middle class speech and manners.

But manners weren’t going to save Sarah’s hair, which was falling out due to a likely combination of low protein diets common among poor women, subpar hygiene given the lack of appropriate facilities and levels of mercury found in many medications of the day. It was traumatizing for Sarah, but hope came in the form of a dream. She claimed that she dreamt that one of her ancestors from Africa came to her and taught her a recipe for a formula that would save her hair. Sarah was soon mixing the formula and, to her ecstatic relief, the formula worked, and her hair grew back. In time she began selling her products door to door. Now married to Charles J. Walker, her third husband, Sarah began calling her products, “Madame C.J. Walker,” adding the “Madame” to let people know that she was married—and to give it a bit of flair.

Sarah’s hair products were a smash hit, and within five years she had earned enough to build the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis, Indiana, and hired 3000 people to work there. Over time she employed an additional 2000 black women to work as her “agents,” dressed in uniform black and white and selling her merchandises door to door out of large black bags. She also founded the Walker College of Hair Culture and began a mail-order business. When acclaimed jazz singer Josephine Baker discovered Madame C.J. Walker’s products and brought them to Paris, business really soared.

Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company, Indianapolis, Indiana 1911

Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company, Indianapolis, Indiana 1911
Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company, Indianapolis, Indiana 1911

No longer a washerwoman, Madame Walker was now raking in millions of dollars in revenue, but she never forgot where she came from. She visited her agents regularly and extolled the virtues of cleanliness and philanthropy. At a yearly convention for the agents, Madame Walker gave cash prizes to local affiliates that had done the most community work. During World War I she was a continual subscriber of war bonds.

But Madame Walker enjoyed the perks of being rich as well; in the beginning when she toured the United States, she had been forced to sit in the horrible segregated train cars … but with her business skyrocketing, she was able to afford her own personal car. She and her daughter Leila (later A’Lelia Walker) moved to New York, where they hired a black architect to construct a house for them on Hudson River, not far from another rich family, the Rockefellers. She opened a town house and hair salon on 136th Street in Harlem that was as beautiful as anything established on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

Unfortunately, bad health caught up with Madame Walker, and she died from kidney failure and hypertension. She worked right up to the end though, defying doctor’s orders, and in her will she stipulated that her company must always be run by a woman (unfortunately, men soon took over, and they began to sell the skin-lightening creams that she always detested). “I had a dream, and that dream begot other dreams until I am now surrounded by all my dreams come true,” she said shortly before her death at the age of 51. Her daughter Lelia carried on her mother’s philanthropic beliefs, hosting a gathering called The Dark Tower where black musicians, artists and authors met with influential white intellectuals, publishers and critics, sparking the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance.

Madame C.J. Walker works referenced:

America’s Women, by Gail Collins

Cool Women, by Dawn Chipman et al

Madame CJ Walker

Madame CJ Walker Driving an Automobile

Madame CJ Walker Driving an Automobile
Madame CJ Walker Driving an Automobile


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