Sarah Breedlove: African-American entrepreneur and philanthropist

The next informative article this week, is on a woman who was honoured by having a series made on her achievements which you can find on Netflix. The woman we are talking about is: Sarah Breedlove. 📝

You might know her best as Madame C.J. Walker. This was the name she used for her own hair care made especially for black hair. She developed her own company with this name: Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. This company made her the woman who often is described as the first female self-made millionaire. But she did not only achieve this, she also became a philanthropist who advocated for the black community. 💆🏿‍♀️🧴

Learn more about this special woman in the following article! (Also don’t forget to check out the series to learn even more about her and the context she lived in!! 📺)

Sarah Breedlove/ Madam C.J. Walker | *23-12-1867| † 25-05-1919| USA | Entrepreneur, Philanthropist

Madam C.J. Walker was an early-twentieth-century African-American entrepreneur and philanthropist, who founded the haircare company known as the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She is mostly remembered as the first female self-made millionaire in the US, but there are also many other reasons for her to be remembered: not only for her savvy entrepreneurship, but also for her work as an activist working to improve the position of African-Americans. 

Walker was born as Sarah Breedlove on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana in 1867 as the daughter of formerly enslaved parents and worked as a washerwoman for much of her adult life. According to her own telling of her life story, she was bent over her washtub one day when she asked herself how she could ever get ahead in life. Ten years later, she had rebranded herself as ‘Madam C.J. Walker’ and invented a product called ‘Wonderful Hair Grower’, which lay at the basis of her successful company. 

Walker came into the world of cosmetics in her mid-thirties, when she started working as a commission agent selling products door-to-door for the Poro cosmetics company. Three years later, in 1906, she founded the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company through which she sold haircare products of her own. It was after her marriage to Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising man and her third husband, that she started referring to herself by her new name. This was clearly a strategic decision: the glamorous sounding ‘Madam’, also used by French beauty professionals, lent her products a certain allure. 

Operating both as a door-to-door and mail-order cosmetics business, the Walker company’s best-known products were its ‘vegetable shampoo’, a heated comb and Madam C.J. Walker’s ‘Wonderful Hair Grower’, which was meant to treat the scalp and restore women’s hair. According to Walker herself, the recipe for the ‘Wonderful Hair Grower’ had come to her in a dream, after years of experimenting with remedies for her own hair loss problems, which she had suffered from since around the age of thirty. It is more likely, however, that it was an adapted version of one of the many products of this type circulating at the time. 

In the beginning, Walker expanded her business through countless and heavily advertised trips designed to recruit sales agents. On these trips, she told gatherings of black women her personal story, and gave them an idea of how much they would make as a Walker agent, which generally persuaded many of them to come and work for her. Over the years, Walker expanded her business by building hair salons and establishing beauty schools where she trained her sales agents. From 1910, its headquarters were located in Indianapolis, Indiana. 

Walker is known for advertising her products with an empowering message to black women. In a time in which ‘Gibson girls’ – free-spirited, young, attractive and white – populated beauty ads, Walker used her own image on her packaging and used a before-and-after photograph of herself to advertise her products in newspapers. Walker’s use of her own image showing a dark-skinned black woman who did not conform to contemporary beauty ideals was quite revolutionary, and sent the message that women who looked like her could also be beautiful.

In line with the empowering message her products conveyed to black women, Walker was a philanthropist committed to causes that would improve the position of African-Americans. She donated a substantial portion of her wealth to organizations advocating for the rights of black people, including the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund, to which she gave the largest contribution they had ever received. A decade after founding her business, moreover, Walker began organizing annual conferences at which her nation-wide network of Walker agents came together. With these conferences, Walker offered black women a space to discuss their business ideas and mobilized them to do charitable work for the African-American community. At the first of these conferences, held in 1917 – which was also one of the first US-wide gatherings of women, black or white, to discuss business and commerce – Walker impressed upon her sales agents that their ‘first duty’ was to care about others and the attendees sent a telegram to president Woodrow Wilson protesting recent race riots in East St. Louis. 

As a businesswoman, Walker was very aware of the power of publicity. For one thing, she made sure that the press chronicled her philanthropic activities. This drew attention to the causes she was fighting for, while undoubtedly also being a clever marketing strategy. She also included testimonials by her sales agents in her ads. In their testimonials, her employees emphasized that becoming a Walker agent had allowed them to stop working for others and start making their own money, enabling them to send their children to school and buy a house – something that was not cut out for many black women at the time. Such testimonials no doubt served as a marketing technique to expand the business: Walker’s cosmetics were largely sold door-to-door, and to expand her business Walker needed as many sales agents as she could find. At the same time, these testimonials reflected the more attractive prospects black women had as employees of the Walker company. Indeed, it is estimated that, as Walker agents, many black women found employment that offered far better pay and more independence than other professions that would have been available to them at the time, such as domestic servants and washerwomen.

In 1917, Walker contracted Vertner Tandy – the first registered African-American architect in the state of New York – to build what she called her ‘dream of dreams’ house. Not insignificantly, the location for this grand estate (owned by the daughter of parents who had been born into slavery) was Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, where many wealthy white families, including the Rockefellers, the Astors and the Vanderbilts, had their upstate New York retreats. In line with her philanthropic work she held political gatherings at her new home, named Villa Lewaro, which were attended by well-known activists dedicated to improving the position of African-Americans. Wishing to present herself as a symbol of possibility for the black community – and eager to avoid any criticism of ‘conspicuous consumption’ – she emphasized to the press that she had built her house ‘to point to young Negroes what a lone woman accomplished and to inspire them to do big things’. Walker – who knew exactly how to present herself in the press – was very aware that a house, built for a black woman by a black architect, had huge symbolic value, and made sure to accentuate this.  

When she died in 1919 at the age of 51, newspapers heralded her as a millionaire, and she has often been described as the first female self-made millionaire in the US, which stands in stark contrast to her background as the daughter of formerly enslaved parents. While she was possibly not the first female, or even the first female African-American millionaire, she was certainly one of the wealthiest self-made businesswomen in the US. After her death, her daughter ran the Walker company, which continued operating until the 1980s.  

In the 1960s and 1970s, the figure of Madam C.J. Walker received some criticism in black activist circles for being involved in a beauty industry that promoted hair straightening products and, thus, white Western beauty norms. During her lifetime, in which similar criticisms were also voiced, she consistently advertised her products – which included a heated comb that was used for straightening hair – with an emphasis on creating healthy hair and improving black women’s self-esteem. In this way, she countered potential criticism by emphasizing black women’s right to a well cared-for appearance, which had long been reserved exclusively for white women.  

So while Madam C.J. Walker is often remembered for being the first female self-made millionaire, as you can see there are other reasons that her story still resonates today. She donated to many causes dedicated to improving the lives of black people, through her company she created jobs for many black women (offering them an escape from the life of domestic labour they likely faced), and mobilized her employees to do charitable work. In her ads, moreover, she spread the message that dark-skinned black women could be beautiful. In this way, Walker can be remembered as an early-twentieth-century black activist entrepreneur, who put actions to improve the position of African-Americans at the forefront of her commercial enterprise, in a time in which not many African-Americans would have had a chance to do so. 


Author: Saskia Bultman
Image: Marlijn Metzlar

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