Madame C. J. Walker
First African-American Millionaire of the Early 20th Centuryby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Sarah Breedlove, later known as Madame C. J. Walker, became America’s very first African American female millionaire in the early twentieth century. Born December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana to sharecroppers, Sarah Breedlove was brought up in a life of poverty and had little education because she never went to school. At the age of seven, Breedlove was orphaned when both her parents died, leaving her older married sister in Mississippi to raise her. At age fourteen, she married Moses McWilliams to escape the abuse of her brother-in-law. Lelia McWilliams was born June 6, 1885 and just two short years later Sarah McWilliams was left a single mother when her husband died. McWilliams supported herself and her daughter working as a washerwoman for the next eighteen years. She went onto marry another man, Charles J Walker, and later took on the publicity name of Madame C. J. Walker when she began her own cosmetic company. It became highly successful and profitable and turned Walker’s life around from a poor little black girl to a charitable millionaire all before the 1920’s. Madame Walker died May 25, 1919 in Irvington, New York from natural causes. Even though, Madame C. J. Walker was born into a life of poverty and abuse, she became instrumental in gaining respect for blacks due to her tremendous work ethic and vision, charitable philanthorpy, and founding of a highly successful African-American cosmetic company.
Although, Madame C. J. Walker was orphaned, abused, and uneducated early on in life, she still developed an out-standing work ethic and vision in her to survive and succeed beyond anyone’s expectations. Walker was willing to work hard to gain what she wanted, even in the face of adversity. At a NAACP convention she gave this speech, “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted from there to the washtub. Then, 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.” Her motto was only one-self can help themselves to get where they want to be. “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.” Madame Walker did not become a millionaire over night or by taking it easy. In her words, “I got my start by giving myself a start.” To sum up, Madame C. J. Walker set an example for all women nationwide and even international by working hard and not letting adversity and discrimination get in the ways of her achievements; she was truly ahead of her time.
When Madame C. J. Walker’s business became a moneymaking, success, she
did not keep the wealth to herself, but instead became a charitable philanthropist.
The agents Walker employed not only went door-to-door advertising and selling
her products, they also taught women how to become their own boss. “Walker’s
assistants taught women how to set up beauty parlors in their own homes, keep
business records, and become financially independent.” This was important
to Walker because it gave women hope and dignity and made them feel that their
lives had been altered, deepened, and enriched for the better. Madame Walker
also gave women the choice and opportunity to be financially independent so
they did not have to rely on their husbands, and in Walker’s case, become
widowed with source of income. In addition, she also founded two colleges to
train African-American women to be cosmetologists, one in Pittsburgh and one
in New York. This gave women a sense of dignity in being able to support themselves
and their families. Likewise, Walker gave money to African-American organizations
and institutes. She gave money towards scholarships for women at Tuskegee Institute
and Charlotte Hawkin’s Palmer Memorial Institute, as well, as, bequeathing
five thousand dollars to both Bethone’s Daytona Normal and Industrial
for Negro Girls and Lucy Laney’s Haynes Institute in Augusta, Georgia.
“Walker also contributed to homes for the ages in St. Louis
and Indianapolis and to the Young Women’s Christian Association, as well as, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.” Madame C. J. Walker was a charitable philanthropist because she never forgot the poor, black heritage from which she came from and decided that it was only right that she give back to her race who were less fortunate than herself.
Madame Walker is most famous for her highly successful African-American cosmetic company that made her a millionaire. Walker was suffering from a scalp infection that caused her to loose most of her hair in the 1890’s. She began experimenting with patented medicines and hair-care products. Then, she had a dream that solved all her problems, “He answered my prayer, for one night I had a dream, and in that dream a big, black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up in my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind to begin to sell it.” The key ingredient used in the mixture was sulfur to address common scalp infections caused by poor nutrition and other problems associated with a low standard of living. The Walker System was soon created using “Madame Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower,” vigorous brushing and the application of a heated iron comb. Walker’s purpose, though, was not to straighten hair but to encourage growth and cure any common scalp ailments. After marrying second husband, Charles J Walker, a businessman, Mrs. Walker made her first appearance as Madame C. J Walker in an advertisement for her hair-grower in the Denver newspaper. Walker hired agents to sell her products door-to-door in the Untied States and Caribbean and soon she was getting national attention that turned her company into a success when people learned of her miracle hair growers and remedies to ailments. Madame C. J. Walker created a hair-grower that was the foundation of a highly successful company that manufactured African-American cosmetics and turned out a millionaire dollar profit.
All in all, Madame C. J. Walker was a head of her time in gaining respect and notoriety for blacks in America because of her tremendous work ethic, charitable philanthropy, and founding of a successful business. “ Walker’s life and legacy encompassed major events and figures in the historic struggle for black advancement in the early part of the twentieth century.” Madame Walker’s method of working hard and doing it yourself proved that she was a woman with a high vision and determination. She believed in taking the road less traveled to find success. The donations and contributions Walker made helped many African-American less fortunate than herself, both socially and financially. She also encouraged women to be financially independent so they could feel free and have some dignity. When, Madame C. J. Walker had a dream, it later transformed her into an well-educated businesswoman and a multi-millionaire, well respected in her community. The company also employed and trained many blacks so they could create jobs and an income for themselves. In spite of Walker’s fame and fortune, she remained down-to-earth because she never forgot the poor, black heritage and past that she came from. “My desire now is to do more than ever for my race…” Madame C. J. Walker became an inspiration to all black woman in her time because she gave them hope and brought dignity and meaning into their lives and now it is time for the generation of the twenty-first century to know her for a great pioneer in the fight for equality among genders and races in America.
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24 September 2003 <http://www.madamecjwalker.com/