Madam C.J. Walker Museum
Madam C.J. Walker Exhibit and Salon
By any measure, becoming the first female self-made millionaire would be a laudable achievement. What makes the story of Madam C.J. Walker even more remarkable is that she accomplished this benchmark at a time when neither African-Americans nor women were allowed an equal economic and political footing.
From Delta to A Dream
The story begins with the birth of Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in Delta, LA, across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg, MS. Her parents and older sister had been born into slavery; Sarah was the first of her family to be born free following the end of the Civil War.
Sarah’s early life was filled with challenges and life-changing circumstances that likely instilled the drive and ambition that would characterize her adult years. She was an orphan at age 7 and soon moved to Vicksburg to live with her older sister and brother-in-law, working as a domestic servant. She married Moses McWilliams at age 14, had daughter Lelia (later A’Lelia) at age 17, and was a widow at age 19.
As a single mother in the “Redemption Era” South, Sarah left Vicksburg and joined her brothers in St. Louis, MO. There she met her second husband, John Davis. Sarah, John, and Lelia lived together in St. Louis until the couple’s divorce around 1903. Once again, Sarah and Lelia were on their own. But Sarah soon crossed paths with Annie Turnbo Malone, a rising African-American hair products entrepreneur who had opened her first store in St. Louis in 1902. Sarah became a commissioned sales agent for Malone’s Poro hair care products around 1904, moving to Denver, CO in 1905. Sarah continued to sell Malone’s products but also began to develop products of her own, using a formula she said had come to her in a dream.
In 1906, Sarah married Charles Joseph Walker and adopted the name Madam C.J. Walker. Following a disagreement with Malone, Sarah started her own cosmetics and hair care company, Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing, with the involvement of her husband and daughter. Her business included door-to-door and mail order sales, beauty schools in Pittsburgh, PA and Indianapolis, IN, and product manufacturing centered in Indianapolis, IN.
A core component of the Madam C.J. Walker business model was the centralized, standardized training of the sales force and beauticians. Training in “The Walker System” of African-American hair care ensured customers of a consistent experience and provided the business with a steady demand for product. This pioneering brand-aware training also extended to sales women wearing a standard “uniform” of white shirt and black skirt, and having a black satchel filled with Madam C.J. Walker products.
Annie Turnbo Malone became a millionaire in the early 1900s after successfully launching a haircare empire for black women in St. Louis. She also gave Walker her start in the cosmetics industry.
The Madam C.J. Walker experience also included franchised “beauty shoppes,” one of which is preserved at 54 Hilliard Street, Atlanta, GA. These shoppes provided African-American women with a place to go for cosmetics and hair treatment specific to their needs. According to advertisements of the time, services included massage, shampoo, pressing, curling, waving, hot oil treatments, singeing, facials, hair cutting, dyeing and tinting, fancy hair dressing, eye brow arching, and manicuring. Moreover, Madam C.J. Walker provided African-American women with a means of entering commerce on their own by providing financing for the franchised shoppes at a time when African-Americans often were denied access to commercial banking.
In 1913, daughter A’Lelia suggested having a presence in Harlem. It was the early years of what later would be known as the “Harlem Renaissance.” It was while Sarah lived in New York City that, once again, she set a new standard for successful business people -- through her pioneering philanthropy. She had already played a major role in uplifting African Americans by employing tens of thousands and providing funding for black women franchise owners. But she went further by sharing her wealth with educational and community service organizations that had the goal of improving the lot of blacks in the early 20th century. Beneficiaries of her generosity included the Tuskegee Institute and the NAACP, as well as organizations run by women.
But just as quickly as she had achieved unprecedented success, the flame was extinguished; she passed away at age 51 on May 25, 1919 in New York.
There is some controversy as to whether Madam C.J. Walker was in fact the first female self-made millionaire. Some records show the value of her estate as only $600,000. However, the Guinness Book of World Records notes “her substantial real estate holdings (her property in New York state alone was valued at $700,000 at the time of her death) combined with her controlling interest in a $500,000-a-year firm, bring her estimated net work to well over $1,000,000. There are other businesswomen who may have hit the million-dollar-mark earlier – including Madam Walker's former employer Annie Turnbo Malone (1869–1957), real-estate magnate Bridget "Biddy" Mason (1818–91) and financier Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814–1904) – but their finances are not nearly as well documented.”
The Legacy Lives On
Sarah Breedlove Walker’s legacy lives on in her inspiring example of ambition, perseverance, marketing and branding acumen, and philanthropy. The Madam C.J. Walker Museum in Atlanta pays homage to that legacy and is, along with a salon in Indianapolis, one of the only actual Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Shoppes that still exists to preserve and protect that history.
Come to the museum to learn more about Sarah Breedlove, see the memorabilia, and immerse yourself in the Madam C.J. Walker experience. Please contact us to schedule a visit.
More About Madam C.J. Walker
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