If there is one person from history whose impact on the Black woman’s self-image rivals that of Oprah Winfrey, it is the hair mogul Madame C.J. Walker. Walker was the first successful Black female entrepreneur. Her insistence on involvement in both the business world and civic affairs predates Oprah’s story, and to the extent that Walker created the Winfrey archetype, Barack Obama’s presidency may not have been possible without the great Madame C.J. Walker.
Born Sarah Breedlove, Walker descended from slaves who died when she was still a child. While many young children would have been too traumatized to overcome the death of two parents, she and her sister took jobs laboring in kitchens, and on farms until they could sustain themselves. In 1910, after forming the Hair Culturists’ Union of America in Indianapolis, she made it a point to find allies in the Black political community. She moved to New York in 1916, building (with the help of the first registered black architect) a palatial home that rivaled any in the Hudson River Valley.
How she came into the hair business was no coincidence. Walker may have suffered from alopecia, a rare ailment that is characterized by little or no hair growth on the body. As a response to her own condition, Walker created a formula (that she claimed had been delivered to her in a dream) to restore hair growth. While many say she did invent a metal “hot comb” specifically for Black women to straighten out the curl in their roots, that is not accurate. The primary cause of her hair loss was the result of a common problem of the era i.e. infrequent washing and products that were not designed for the hair of Black women.
With her ingenious marketing in every Black publication, and her constant travel to trade shows, Walker became a household name. She interrupted Booker T. Washington’s prestigious National Negro Business League Convention after Washington had apparently ignored her requests to speak. As a woman who had founded and developed one of the nation’s most formidable businesses, she would not be denied the right to correlate with her peers on the same level.
Not one to horde her riches, Walker moved to create philanthropic projects that would help Black communities. She funded the YMCA building in Indianapolis where her business was, donated to the NAACP, and traveled to Woodrow Wilson’s White House to present an anti-lynching petition after violent outbursts had killed Blacks in an Illinois riot. She passed on her legacy of philanthropy to daughter A’Lelia, who was responsible for creating “The Dark Tower,” a salon that hosted Black writers and artists who would display their work during the Harlem Renaissance. Walker died of kidney disease, and bequeathed her estate to her female heirs.
In 1911 Madam Walker pledged $1000 toward the building fund of the black YMCA in Indianapolis. She was one of many funders.
Take a look at more great Black women in history in our gallery below: