Heroine. Millionnaire. Entrepreneur. Philanthropist
Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 7
Madam C. J. Walker is one of the most successful, self-made female entrepreneurs in United States’ history. Her rise from poverty to become one of the first women to achieve wealth and influence through her own efforts is a testament to her ambition and intelligence.
The story of Madam C. J. Walker, who was born Sarah Breedlove on 23 December 1867, is also one of commitment and compassion. Despite being orphaned at age seven, married at fourteen, pregnant at eighteen and widowed at twenty, she persisted and, at the age of thirty-eight, moulded the entrepreneurial identity of Madam C. J. Walker.
Walker would go on to help thousands of Americans with her product, her enterprise and her philanthropy. Walker died in 1919 at the age of fifty-one with an estate valued at $600,000, over $9 million today. Her business acumen and line of hair and beauty products for black women would see her become one of the twentieth century’s most successful entrepreneurs.
Despite the available information on the life of Madam C. J. Walker, she is predominantly known, incorrectly, as ‘the first self-made black female millionaire’. The moniker of ‘millionaire’ - one which Walker personally rejected - was attached to her by a New York Times Magazine article in 1917.
However, Madam C. J. Walker’s legacy isn’t solely her accumulated wealth but rather her impact on her community. Walker was an astute businesswoman, a respected activist and a generous philanthropist.
Despite all this, Walker was still a black woman in early twentieth-century America. A land endemic in social, political and economic hardships for African Americans.
In the face of these impediments, Walker, through her business, the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company (MCJWMC), aspired to provide opportunities for black women to develop financial autonomy through education and employment.
In the words of Walker herself,
“I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavour to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race.”
The early twentieth century saw black women paid up to 60% less than their white counterparts. Despite the backdrop of wider gender oppression, white women routinely refused to work alongside black women, even going as far as striking against employers who hired black women.
It is in this landscape that the MCJWMC employed several thousand black women and trained thousands more in the art of self-care, entrepreneurship and financial freedom.
One patron, Maggie Wilson, who became an employee in 1911, credited Walker with:
“... [opening] up a trade for hundreds of our coloured women to make an honest and profitable living and where they make as much in one week as a month’s salary would bring from any other position a coloured woman can secure… I advise all who have not ‘learned the trade’ or tried her wonderful goods to start at once.”
Walker was also known to provide capital to budding black female entrepreneurs, as was the case of Florence Moss Blackwell, whom Walker gave $50 towards the $175 start-up costs of a beauty parlour.
The appeal of Walker and the MCJWMC was not only economic; she also engaged women through educational initiatives. In 1908, Walker established Lelia College, named after her daughter. The college trained thousands of black women and was one of the leading beauty schools at the time.
Walker also set up scholarships, donated gifts to poor families, spoke out against injustices and gave regular financial contributions to organisations working for racial uplift, such as schools, orphanages and churches.
Walker used her philanthropy to advance opportunities for black women whose success she believed was a conduit for racial uplift. Her legacy can be seen in the words used to describe her by her contemporaries both during and after her life - “heroine”, “foremost woman of our race”, and “a living example of what one can accomplish”.
Following her death in May 1919, W. E. B. Du Bois eulogised:
“It is given to few persons to transform a people in a generation. Yet this was done by the late Madam C. J. Walker.”