In 1905, Madam C. J. Walker launched her hair care products business. By 1918, she had a mansion that happened to be in the same neighborhood as John Rockefeller. The unlikely rise of Walker from a cotton plantation to the ranks of the elite is a story of self determination and grit. Walker, after all, was a Black woman challenging white supremacy through entrepreneurship, in an age of racial terror.
Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in December of 1867. Her parents had been slaves on the plantation where she was born, their first child born into “freedom.” After emancipation her parents continued on as sharecroppers. By the age of 7 she was an orphan on that same plantation, living with her sister an an abusive brother-in-law. She couldn’t take it for very long — by 14 she married to get away. By 17 she was a mother and just two years later, she was a widow. By some accounts, her husband perished in a race riot (massacre). She went north to St. Louis, hoping for better opportunities for her daughter and a better life. Instead, she spent the next 10 years as a washerwoman.
As Breedlove once recalled, “I was at my tubs one morning with a heavy wash before me. As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds, I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’ ” That question, coupled with Sarah’s own hair loss, began pushing her in a new direction. Walker started as an agent for Annie Pope-Turbo, a Black businesswoman who had an established business in St. Louis, the Poro School of Beauty Culture. Likely with the help of Poro products, Sarah’s hair grew back. Sarah took the products, her drive and new husband C.J. Walker, to Denver in 1906. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower became her bread and butter, selling the product door to door starting out. By 1907 she was making $300 each month — equal to her annual salary as a washerwoman.
Walker was around 40-years-old when she launched her company. Not only did she enrich herself but she used her business as a platform to launch some 40,000 Black women into business as agents. She was a member of the organizing committee for the NAACP’s July 28, 1917 Silent Protest Parade against lynching, marching alongside W. E. B. Dubois, among others. Between 1912 and 1914, Walker provided scholarships for six students at Tuskegee University. She also donated to the NAACP, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and helped fund the effort to buy and protect the home of Frederick Douglass in Washington. Walker also enjoyed the last few years of her life, of course. She hired Vertner Woodson Tandy, one of New York State’s first licensed Black architects, to build a four-and-a-half acre estate in the same neighborhood as John D. Rockefeller. She died just one year after the home was completed.
Walker died with a net worth of roughly $600,000, the equivalent of well over $7 million today. Her successful system of “Walker Agents” set the model for the Mary Kays and Avons of the world. In an age when it was not yet popular, Walker made sure to feature dark women in her ads as desirable. Walker, a woman born on a plantation and surrounded by calamity, literally changed the world and she did it by catering to a Black customer base.