Women’s History Month Spotlight
Madam C.J. Walker: America’s First Female Self-Made Millionaire
I first learned of Madam C.J. Walker while living in Indianapolis, Indiana in the late 80’s, early 90’s. As a living testament to her pioneering achievements in the world of hair care products, the infamous Walker Building edifice remains to this day in the 600 block of Indiana Avenue in downtown Indy.
The story of Walker's meteoric rise as one of America’s most iconic figures of the 20th century is truly remarkable, a legacy that continues to inspire generations of entrepreneurial women throughout the world.
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, she is widely regarded as the first female self-made millionaire in the United States. As the founder of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, she revolutionized the Black hair care industry while creating untold employment opportunities for African American women.
Despite having been born into poverty, Walker displayed a relentless determination early in her life to make something of herself. The daughter of enslaved people, Walker was orphaned at seven, married at fourteen, and became a widow at twenty. Over the next couple of decades she labored as a washerwoman for $1.50 a week. Then with her discovery of a revolutionary hair care formula for Black women, the entire trajectory of her life changed.
After a series of jobs including a stint with another Black women entrepreneur Annie Turnbo Malone, she started her own business in 1905 selling Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula. She used her own money to fund the business and hired a team of Black women as sales associates to promote her products. She also created a network of beauty schools and salons, offering training and employment opportunities to Black women.
Walker’s success was more than just about free enterprise and wealth. She was an advocate for civil rights, donating to organizations such as the NAACP and the YMCA. She also established the Madam C.J. Walker Scholarship Fund to help Black women pursue higher education.
To learn more about Madam C.J Walker’s legacy achievements, I highly recommend “Self Made, (On Her Own Ground)” a book written by A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great granddaughter. This riveting page turner chronicles Walker’s incredible rags-to-riches story and inspiring journey of self-discovery and financial success. It begins with Walker’s early life as a sharecropper in the South, her transition to a washerwoman in Indianapolis, and her eventual rise to become America’s first female self-made millionaire.
The book goes on to explore the launch of her own beauty empire, a salon and college for Black women, and philanthropic pursuits. It spotlights Walker’s incredible accomplishments, demonstrating how determination, hard work, and resilience can lead to success.
Says Bundles in the book’s prologue:
“My personal journey to write On Her Own Ground, the first comprehensive biography of my great-great -grandmother really began before I could read. The Walker women — Madam, her daughter A’Lelia Walker and my grandmother Mae Walker — were already beckoning me at an early age, sometimes whispering, sometimes clamoring with the message that I must tell their story.”
“Madam CJ Walker’s story has always deserved an expensive loom on which to weave the threads of her legendary life with the broad themes and major events of American history.”
Walker’s legacy and pioneering achievements in the business world are an important chapter of Women’s History Month. Her success is a testament to her hard work and determination, a stellar example of what women entrepreneurs can achieve despite the odds. Her legacy continues to inspire generations of women, particularly Black females to pursue big dreams and make a difference in the world.
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