Madam C.J. Walker, The First Female Self-Made Millionaire, Was a Black Woman Who Battled The Odds
Born to freed slaves working as sharecroppers, Madam C.J. Walker had odds stacked against her. She was orphaned at 7, married at 14 and widowed at 20. However, by the time she died, she was a millionaire.
In 1986, then Revlon executive Irving Bottner was quoted in the October 13th Newsweek magazine as saying, “In the next couple of years, the Black-owned businesses will disappear. They’ll all be sold to White companies.” He added, “We are accused of taking business away from the black companies, but black consumers buy quality products – too often their black brothers didn’t do them any good.”
He had stirred a hornet’s nest. Reverend Jesse Jackson led a boycott against Revlon demanding several concessions. In February 1987, the Reverend’s Operation PUSH social activist organization led a mock Revlon funeral in protest declaring the death of the hair-care giant. Ayana D. Byrd and Lori Tharps, in Hair Story, explain, “…African-American protesters made it clear they would not stand by and allow “the Man” to take over an industry that had been a source of pride, achievement, and economic empowerment since the beginning of the Black experience in America.” It is this very industry that had made the larger than life African-American industry captains like Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) and Annie Turnbo Malone.
Madam C.J. Walker was born to freed slaves in Delta Louisianna on the 23rd of December in 1867. When she was 7, Walker lost her parents and at 14, she got married. Her motivation was to escape the abuse of a cruel brother in law. However, by 20, she was widowed and moved to St. Louis, Missouri where her brothers worked as barbers. She would first earn her living by doing laundry before becoming a Poro sales agent. Poro Company was Annie Turnbo Malone’s beauty-products business which already had a product called the Wonderful Hair Grower. Walker was to later develop her own Wonderful Hair Grower which marked her big entry into the hair-care business. She moved from St. Louis to Denver, where she built her company and she was to then build a head office and factory in Indianapolis. It is argued that she copied Malone and indeed Malone once warned customers to beware of imitations. The debate is now largely irrelevant as both women became raging successes. The history books are large enough to celebrate both of them.
Yahoo Finance says if Walker had sold her business in 1919 when she died, it would have been worth between $1 million and $2 million which amounts to around $14.5 million in today’s dollars. The Guinness World Book of Records lists her as the first female self-made millionaire. A black woman, born to freed slaves who were still subjected to institutional oppression made a fortune against all odds. Her contribution to African-American culture is not simply in inspiring entrepreneurship but in reclaiming a very political industry – hair-care. The attitude exhibited by Revlon in the 1980s is no different from the repugnant attitude of white-owned hair-care businesses like Plough and Ozonized Ox Marrow in the 1900s. Byrd and Tharps say, “Advertisements from the time read like personal insults…” Walker and Malone presented a way to reclaim the narrative around black hair.
Header Image: MADAM WALKER FAMILY ARCHIVES/A’LELIA BUNDLES