Celebrating Black History Month – Madame C.J. Walker

Danielle Oliveira, Staff Reporter

Through the years of 1867-1919 lived a strong role model for many: entrepreneur, philanthropist, and activist, Madam C.J. Walker. Madam Walker descendant of slaves rose from poverty to become one of the wealthiest African-Americans of her time. Not only were her accomplishments staggering but she used her position to advocate for the advancement of Black Americans and to put an end on lynching. 

Madam Walker, originally Sarah Breedlove, was born December 23, 1867 on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana. She was one of six children of Owen and Minerva Breedlove. Her parents were former slaves turned to sharecroppers after the civil war. At the tender age of 7 she was orphaned and lived with her older sister, working in cotton fields. As an escape from an abusive brother in law, Walker married Moses McWilliam at 14. When her husband died 6 years later she was left a widowed single mother to A’lelia Walker. But did she let this rough and humbling beginning drag her down? No, she continued her battle and became one of the most remarkable self made women. 

Like many other little black girls at the time, Walker was born into a world of picking cotton in the hot sun. Her hair was pulled, braided, and wrapped tight with a head scarf. She had little to no knowledge on how to take care of her hair, especially after the death of her mother when she was  5. As she grew older, she had to watch schools being set up for African Americans being burned to the floor and teachers, who willing to teach black students, experience heavy backlash and even death. In her lifetime. She received 3 months of formal education if that. Everything else she was to learn would be self taught. 

After her marriage to Moses, having a child, and his abrupt death, she soon remarried to John Davis. But soon after that Davis ran off with another woman. As a single mother Walker still continued to battle through and financially supported her daughter’s education. 

In 1903 she started seeing Mr. Charles Joseph Walker. Partly because of him, she started caring more about her appearance. She realized her hair was breaking and falling off due to many reasons: infrequent washing, washing in dirty water, and having her pulled up all the time was about to make her go bald.  Her problems were common problems African American women at the time shared. This began her interest in hair care. That same year she became a sales agent for the hair products of Annie Pope-Turnbo, who would later be a competitor. 

She had a dream and started creating products for hair growth. Although her boyfriend at the time and future husband was skeptical about her new products, he still continued to use his salesman charm to promote her new invention. In January 26 of 1906 she and Charles got married and she renamed herself “Madam C. J. Walker” which would soon become famous throughout the country. 

After putting in hard work to successfully grow her company, she went around the nation recruiting agents, establishing training centers, selling hair products, telling her inspiring stories and most importantly fighting prejudice. 

“I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavor to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race.” – Madam C. J. Walker. 

As her wealth and popularity increased, so did her voice and generosity. Walker continued to contribute back to her community as much as possible by donating to the YMCA, funding 6 tuition scholarships for African American students, and donating 5,000 dollars NAACP’s anti lynching movement, which translates to more than 100,000 dollars in today’s money. Just before she died of kidney failure, Walker changed her will and left two thirds of the future net profits to charity, and thousands of dollars to various schools and individuals. 

“I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.” – Madam C. J. Walker