Black History Month Spotlight: Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) was an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist. She is recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in America in the Guinness Book of World Records. 

She was born on Dec. 23, 1867, near Delta, Louisiana, and she worked as a washerwoman dealing with products such as lye soap, dirt, and hot steam which contributed to hair loss and scalp damage. At the time, indoor plumbing was not standard making it almost impossible to wash and shampoo your hair, creating lice and pollutants that went untreatable. Just like her, many women experienced the same problem. She tried multiple hair products that did not work. These products were predominantly made for white women and made by white-owned businesses. 

So, she saw a need and an opportunity for African Americans and began her research. After much trial and error, she turned to her brothers, who worked as barbers in the city, for help, but unfortunately, they knew nothing about women’s hair. She began by using home remedies and her experience as a washerwoman to learn about the properties. Many hair care products were not necessarily fixed to the curls and texture of black women’s hair. The one product that was different and stood out was Annie Turnbo’s Poro line of hair care. Walker became a sales agent for the product. 

She headed to Denver, where she would then sell the Poro product and work as a cook for pharmacist Edmund L. Scholtz, who helped her understand the chemistry of hair products. When she developed her hair care system, she stopped working for the Poros hair line products. The Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company started selling Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower in 1906. The ingredients included Sulfur, copper sulfate, beeswax, petrolatum, coconut oil, and violet extract perfume to cover the sulfur smell. She explained her formula came to her in a dream. “God answered my prayer, for one night I had a dream, and in the dream, a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair.” 

Walker wanted black girls to benefit from the product and urged clients to follow her “Walker System,” using hair oil, grower, and a hot comb that would straighten the hair and is still popularly used today. 

Walker helped women take pride in themselves and their appearance boosting the black girl community. Overall, Walker’s business was estimated to be worth roughly 1 million dollars after her passing in May of 1919, leaving behind her extraordinary legacy.

source contributing to this story: Madam C. J. Walker – HISTORY