Sarah Breedlove was the first free-born child of her parents, Minerva and Owen Breedlove. She was born on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. Though her parents encouraged their children to get an education, the KKK burned down many schools for African American kids in Louisiana.
Sarah’s parents were sharecroppers, and she worked the cotton fields for 12 hours a day before coming home to dig potatoes for the next night’s dinner, feed the chickens, and sweep the yard. On Saturdays, she and her mother and sister (Louvenia) washed clothes for themselves and white people. They got 1$ a week for washing.
Sarah’s mother and father succumbed to disease and she and her siblings were orphaned by 1875; Sarah was 7. One of their brothers, Alex, went to Vicksburg to look for work, and the girls did laundry day and night in order to survive. When crops failed, the girls went to Vicksburg as well. Louvenia married a cruel and dangerous man, and Sarah lived with them until she could stand it no longer and got married herself. She was just 14.
After her husband died, Sarah moved to St Louis where she had heard that laundresses could make good money and where there was a large black community. Her brothers were there working in a barber shop, and Sarah learned about hair care from them. She worked hard and was determined to save enough to send her daughter, Leila, to school. Sarah also collected money for St Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, where African Americans could go to learn to read and write, though it was illegal for them to go to school. By 1902, Sarah had saved enough to send her daughter Leila to Knoxville College.
Sarah spent time in women’s kitchens as they tried to straighten and restore their hair. Her own hair was weak and she was going bald. All of the so-called cures only made it worse.
At the 1904 World’s fair in St Louis, she heard Booker T Washington’s wife, Margaret Washington, speak. Sarah was struck by Margaret’s poise, her confidence, and her hair. Sarah went to bed praying that God would stop her hair from falling out. That night Sarah had a dream of Africa– the earth, soil, and vegetation. She knew she had her answer. She would seek out oils and herbs that were native to Africa and try them on her hair.
In 1905, Sarah learned that one of her brothers had died. She moved to Denver to be with his wife and children. In an attic room, she set up her laboratory and got to work developing a formula for her hair. During the day, she worked as a cook for Mr. E.L. Scholtz, who owned the largest pharmacy in Denver. When she thought she finally had her formula just right, she tried it on herself. And it worked! Her hair began growing back in faster than it had ever fallen out.
She began going door to door with her three new products: Vegetable Shampoo, Wonderful Hair Grower, and Glossine. She would wash women’s hair with the shampoo, apply the hair grower to nourish the scalp, then apply the Glossine with a specially designed metal comb that had been heated on a stove. She was careful to avoid using words like “good hair” (which usually referred to white hair) and “bad hair” (which usually referred to black hair) because she found them, and the idea behind them, insulting. Most hair care companies were owned by white men, who advertised to African Americans by telling them how unattractive they were and glorifying long straight hair. Black ministers, on the other hand, preached against women straightening their hair instead of remaining how God had created them. Sarah believed that what a woman did with her hair should be her own business, not a man’s.
She used her own before and after pictures in her advertisements, not images of light skinned women with long light colored hair. She conveyed confidence and self-worth in her advertisements, something that was often lacking for women– and especially women of color– at the time.
In 1905, Sarah married Charles Walker, and changed her name, and the name of her company, to Madame CJ Walker. She moved to Pittsburgh, where she and Leila (who had finished school by then), trained salespeople, or agents, to go into women’s kitchens and show them how to use Walker’s products. Every customer was a potential agent, and Madame Walker and Leila talked to them not only about health and beauty, but also about self-sufficiency. They told women they could earn money in a respected profession as a hairdresser or saleswoman, while still being good wives and mothers. Agents could expect to make $5.00 a week, which was a pretty penny in a time when black women typically only made about half that. Black men made about $5.00 a week, while white men could expect to make around $17.00 per week.
In just two years, Madame Walker had nearly one hundred representatives and was making $400.00 a week. She opened the Leila College of Hair Culturists. Women flocked to the college to learn a new profession that would give them pride and independence. Madame Walker left Leila in charge of the business in Pittsburgh, and moved to Indianapolis to spread her products. By 1911, the company was making more than $3,000 a week (about $70,000 in today’s money). For a business run by a black woman, this was almost inconceivable.
In Indianapolis, Madame Walker was outraged when she was asked to pay more for a movie ticket than a white person had to pay. Then and there she began design plans for the Walker building, which would cover an entire city block and include office and factory space, as well as a movie theater for the city’s African American population. The more Madame Walker made, the more she gave, pouring money and energy into her community. In 1913, she made the largest donation of any African American to the construction of the Indianapolis YMCA. She rewarded her agents for making contributions to their community as well.
She divorced Mr Walker in 1913. That same year she attended the National Negro
Business League convention in Chicago. She was the richest black woman in America, yet she could not get the attention of the speaker, Booker T Washington. Finally, she stood up and demanded his attention. “Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face,” she said. She told her story. She spoke of cotton fields and the Ku Klux Klan burning schools. She spoke of washtubs and starting her own business. Then she said something no man there had said, “My object in life is not simply to make money for myself, but to use part of what I make to help others.”
And help others she did. Along with giving thousands of women like her the training and opportunities they needed to create a better life for themselves, she was a voice for her people. She once demanded a meeting with the President to address violence against African Americans. When she heard Woodrow Wilson was in a meeting about a farm feed bill and could not be bothered, she wasted no time expressing her anger: “You are talking to us of animal feed when colored people are being murdered in the streets!” In 1919 Madam Walker became seriously ill while on a trip to St Louis. She was rushed home, where she ordered her accountants to make a donation of $5,000 to the anti-lynching fund of the NAACP. It was the largest donation the organization had ever received.
Before she died she said, “I want to live to help my race.”
Madam CJ Walker not only helped her race, she has helped countless women by proving that when life doesn’t provide you with opportunities, you have to make them yourself.
She followed her own path. And that is beautiful.
Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker by Kathryn Lasky