Sarah smile. Smile, for though you have been born poor, you have been born free.
Not even her poor and difficult beginnings stymied Madame Walker’s road to greatness; born December 23, 1867, roughly two years after the alleged emancipation of her race, she was an orphan at seven, a wife at fourteen, a mother at seventeen and a widow at twenty. The woman who would come to be known as the first self-made, female millionaire, and the greatest benefactress of her race, was born the daughter of Owen and Minerva Breedlove, poor ex-slaves, living on a cotton farm in Louisiana.
Of course, with a name like Sarah Breedlove (also spelled Briedlove), greatness was inevitable. Though Breedlove was the slave name passed down from her parents, their choice of the name Sarah seems, in hindsight, to be clearly prophetic. The biblical Sarah was the wife of Abraham, mother to a nation who would eventually give birth to, or “breed” Jesus, a walking representation of God, who is Love. Sarah breed Love. Sarah, give birth to God!
Indeed, Madame Walker lived up to this divine calling, for those born out of the womb of her spirit and vision, those who follow in her footsteps, are equipped with the ability to do as a God would do: create something from nothing, bringing to fruition whatsoever they will, in the midst of the most trying circumstances and for the good of others. For the love of her race, Madame accomplished –against all odds- not only what no one had ever done, but also, what no one believed could be done; in so doing, she ruined every possible excuse for failure.
A washerwoman by trade, at the age of thirty-three, in 1900, she began selling a product door-to-door, which she had formulated to remedy her own hair loss. She pinpointed the root of her hair problems, which was the scalp, and created a hair care product, and a system of hair maintenance that focused on the need for a clean and healthy scalp for maximum hair growth.
She then extended the value of cleanliness by incorporating it into a concept she called “Beauty Culture” which emphasized the overall appearance, conduct, and character of the black woman.
By setting up a beauty college, first in Pittsburgh, PA, and later New York city, and a manufacturing facility in Indiana, Madame was able to further establish and promulgate her program of Beauty Culture which trained the black female in three areas: First, the black woman was taught the proper presentation of herself; she was to be clean, neat, properly attired, and well mannered. Second, she was taught how to use Madame’s hair care system on customers, and third, she was taught how to sell Madame’s hair care products to customers.
Amazingly, Madame C.J. Walker provided a solution to the root of the black woman’s demise. She raised the black woman’s self-esteem and confidence about her own beauty and intelligence, and she empowered the black woman economically, thus freeing her from white servitude and male dependency.
This accomplishment is even more amazing when put in the context of the time in which these things were done, and in the context of Madame’s own background.
The time, one historian called the “Nadir”, or lowest point, in the history of the Black race, outside of slavery itself. The blessing of “freedom” was now marred by the blatant terrorist acts of the Ku Klux Klan, and those likeminded individuals working in collusion. The harsh reality faced by the vast majority of Blacks living in this era, was that the number of lynchings peaked during the early nineteen hundreds, as did the other backlashes sparked by Reconstruction, such as the burning of black schools, and the establishment of Jim Crow laws. During this dark period, most black women were either sharecroppers, or washerwomen and house servants for Whites.
Madame Walker was no exception, but she was, however, exceptional.
From whom or from where did this woman get the idea, the vision, the notion, the nerve, audacity, to believe that she was supposed to be more than a white woman’s servant? If her hair was falling out, why did she not simply put a rag over it like all the other Black washerwomen? Who cared? You’re just a washerwoman! Who’s looking Sarah Walker? Besides, no matter what you do to your hair, it’s still nappy; you ain't got “good hair”, and you’re still dark; your nose is too wide, and your butt is too big. What’s the point? You can barely read or write. Your parents were slaves for Whites, and although you’re “free”, you can’t vote ‘cause you’re a black woman who needs to stay in her place-last place! You’re a Nigger woman, subservient to all White people, and to the Nigger man. What the hell do you know about beauty, much less culture!
It is clear that the spirit that fueled Madame Walker’s accomplishments did not come from an outside source; had she been guided by the predominant voices of the time in which she lived, she may have died an impoverished washerwoman. No. Madame Walker was inspired by something from within herself, a deep inner knowing that springs forth from the well of God, innately beautiful, and innately righteous.
The result of this inner guidance was the manifestation of a legacy larger than life, founded upon its essence, the legacy’s origin, the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, Inc., through which, by which, and from which, Madame not only made millions herself, but empowered and inspired other black women to do the same.
Not only so, but Madame’s manufacturing company enabled Madame to give birth to yet another legacy, as Madame became known as “the Greatest Benefactress of her Race”. Through monies earned and derived from Madame’s work in the “hair growing business”, Madame Walker regularly donated large sums of money to charity, and to individuals of her race who were in need; in fact, Madame was so self sacrificing and freely giving, that those closest to her were worried that she would be financially ruined. Desiring all Blacks to have decent homes, at times Madame would assume mortgages of Blacks who were financially strapped, allowing them to repay when and how they could.
Various schools for Blacks, and certain social and civic organizations dedicated to the betterment of the black race, were also beneficiaries of Madame’s philanthropy. Though many have called Madame extravagant, her generosity and passion for her people were Madame’s only extravagances. She gave not for self-aggrandizement, but rather to inspire other wealthy Blacks to give likewise.
Moreover, Madame’s giving went well beyond monetary donations; she lent her name and time to worthy causes; she traversed the country speaking against lynchings, and fought vehemently for the fair treatment of Black soldiers who had served in America’s military during WWI. Madame C.J. Walker was an ambassador of sorts, a spokesperson for all Black skinned people, a revolutionary, visionary, missionary, force.
It should therefore be quite obvious that Madame Walker’s passing on May 25, 1919, was a tremendous loss to the Black race. At that time, Madame had recruited over 25,000 Black women from the United States, Central America and the Caribbean, as door-to-door Beauty Culturists, and was well on her way to Africa. Her net worth was over one million dollars, making her the first female, regardless of color, to become a self-made millionaire; she is one of the most successful black entrepreneurs of all time, and one of the first, to utilize the method know today as multi-level marketing, to sell her products.
As would later be noted in her company’s publication, she was a remarkable woman, indeed! Yet why has history been so negligent to her story? The Legacy of Madame Walker brings to mind the story of the great female Pharaoh Hatshepsut, whose mysterious and untimely death was followed by a mass attempt to erase the truth of her reign as absolute ruler of Kemet (known today as Egypt), allowing only the inscriptions denoting Hatshepsut as “great royal wife” to remain.
Likewise, having suffered her own sudden and suspicious death, Madame Walker’s great and manifold accomplishments were subsequently ignored, as history altered her legacy to that of an inventor. Although in recent years Madame’s entrepreneurial spirit has been honored, attention has paradoxically been diverted from Madame Walker’s manufacturing company, the essence of her legacy, and the vehicle through which her entrepreneurial acumen was expressed.
A building that Madame never saw, and would never have built, and her beloved mansion, built a mere two years before her passing, are both touted as the two national landmarks through which her legacy survives. Indeed the latter does in fact represent one of Madame’s great achievements, but what of the manufacturing company that she had built, working night and day to ensure its success? There is no conceivable way to speak of Madame Walker’s legacy and spirit, without also speaking of the company which she founded; the two are fundamentally interrelated, each giving meaning and definition to the other.
It is therefore wholly impossible to give honor to the one at the expense of, or to the exclusion of, the other. Was it not Madame Walker’s business of manufacturing hair care goods that enabled her to build her grand mansion known as Villa Lewaro, and enabled others after her death, to build the building known today as the Walker Theater Center? How then could anyone presently claiming to honor and perpetuate Madame’s Spirit and her Legacy, take actions to hinder the success of her company? Why would anyone do such a thing?
As the hieroglyphic records discovered among the ruins of Egypt revealed the truth of Pharaoh Hatshepsut, so too do the records, found amidst a ruined company, reveal the truth of the birth and death of Madame C.J. Walker’s Legacy, and the motive of all those who would attempt to stymie or sabotage her company’s complete resurrection.