Black History Month celebrates the many talented people whose contributions to politics, medicine, science and education have gone overlooked largely because of their race. But what about Black people’s contributions to style? Every Friday in February, Styleite will bring you the stories of Black men and women who made a big impact on the way we live our stylish lives — and celebrate their memories and their influence the way they should be. Today, Madam CJ Walker, a beauty industry heavyweight who was the first woman (of any race) to become a self-made millionaire. You can read about the others here.
Opportunities for Black people — and especially for Black women — in the years following the abolition of slavery were few and far between. But Madam CJ Walker, who was born to former slaves in 1867 as Sarah Breedlove, found a way to make herself not only a successful beauty industry entrepreneur, but also the first American woman (and the first Black person) to become a millionaire.
Walker’s rags to riches story is so great and unique that it’s been the focus of a study by the Harvard Business School, not to mention a slew of books. She was born in the Louisiana Delta just two years after the end of the Civil War and became an orphan at age 7. She and her older sister picked cotton in Mississippi for years to make ends meet, until Walker married at age 14.
Her husband died two years after her only daughter, Lelia, was born, and Walker moved with Lelia to St. Louis, where her brothers had set up shop as successful barbers. She worked as a laundress and a cook, and managed to send her daughter to the city’s public schools.
Walker succumbed to a scalp condition in the 1890s that caused her to lose most of her hair, and her official biography says she experimented with a variety of treatments until she found a pomade made by another Black entrepreneur, Annie Malone. Malone’s hair products worked so well for Walker that in 1905 she moved to Denver to sell Malone’s products, and shortly after moved back to St. Louis and married Charles James Walker, a journalist. She changed her name to CJ Walker and set out to create her own hair conditioner, which she marketed and sold under the name Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.
The conditioner was a smash hit among Black women all over the country. Walker traveled extensively in the South doing product demonstrations and selling her wares, which grew to include a vegetable shampoo, a serum that evened out blotchy complexions, a scalp ointment and other cosmetics. Her business grew so much so quickly that in 1908 she opened a school in Pittsburgh to train women how to use and sell her products. (Sound familiar, Avon devotees?) In 1910, she opened another training center in Indianapolis, where she also built a proper factory to make her various hair ointments.
Walker eventually moved to New York to manage her business remotely. She became something of a socialite, building a grand house in Harlem and a country home in Irvington, NY, an Italianate mansion called Villa Lewaro. But perhaps her most important legacy was her dedication to important political and social causes. Her network of over 1,000 “hair culturists” nationwide were all women, and she donated thousands upon thousands of her own personal fortune to causes like the NAACP’s anti-lynching initiative. Her business flourished at a time when women were just beginning to use their money to make their own decisions, and her place at the forefront of widespread consumer capitalism meant that her efforts formed the groundwork for many businesses (inside the beauty industry and out) that followed in her wake.
Walker attributed her success to her tenacity. “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she said. “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.”
If there’s a better example that hard work really can pay off, we don’t know what it is.