“I Got Myself a Start by Giving Myself a Start” -Madam C.J. Walker
By: Stephanie Benney
Passion…just another form of love, with a myriad of forms in itself. Passion fuels relationships, goals, dreams and life purposes. Last year, while attending one of our Biz Chicks mixers, I was introduced to the history and work of a magnificent woman, by the name of Madam C.J. Walker. I never forgot about her and wanted to share her story with you.
Along with February being the month of love, it also brings Black History Month. As promised weeks ago in my post, “The Climb”, I am bringing one final entry for the month of February, dealing with the topic of love. What can I say, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this woman! Her passion and tenacity need to be a prominent example for young girls and females alike. Not only was Madam C.J. Walker an entrepreneur and the first female, self-made millionaire, she was a philanthropist and activist within the African American community. My sincere wish for you is that she lights the fires under your butt the way she does mine!
“Sarah Breedlove, who later became known as Madam C. J. Walker, was born into a former-slave family to parents Owen and Minerva Breedlove. She had one older sister, Louvenia and brothers Alexander, James, Solomon and Owen, Jr. Her parents had been slaves on Robert W. Burney’s Madison Parish farm which was a battle-staging area during the Civil War for General Ulysses S. Grant and his Union troops. She became an orphan at age 7 when her parents died. To escape a yellow fever epidemic and failing cotton crops, the ten year old Sarah and her sister moved across the river to Vicksburg in 1878 to obtain work. At the age of fourteen, Sarah married Moses McWilliams to escape her sister’s abusive husband. They had a daughter, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia Walker, a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance). When Lelia was only two years old, McWilliams died. Sarah’s second marriage to John Davis August 11, 1894 failed and ended sometime in 1903. She married for the third time in January, 1906 to newspaper sales agent, Charles Joseph Walker; they divorced in 1912.
Madam Walker was an entrepreneur who built her empire developing hair products for black women. She claims to have built her company on an actual dream where a large black man appeared to her and gave her a formula for curing baldness. When confronted with the idea that she was trying to conform black women’s hair to that of whites, she stressed that her products were simply an attempt to help black women take proper care of their hair and promote its growth.
Madam Walker was quite the business woman. Her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker and her daughter Lelia had key roles in the growth and day-to-day operations of the business. In September, 1906 Madam Walker and her husband toured the country promoting their products and training sales agents while Lelia ran a mail-order operation from Denver. From 1908 to 1910 they operated a beauty training school, the Lelia College for Walker Hair Culturists, in Pittsburgh. In 1910 they moved the central operations to Indianapolis, then the country’s largest inland manufacturing base, to utilize that city’s access to eight major railway systems. Madam Walker and her husband divorced in 1912. She soon reached the height of her success, at which point Madam Walker gathered a group of key principals to run the company.
She became an inspiration to many black women. Fully recognizing the power of her wealth and success she lectured to promote her business which in turn empowered other women in business. She gave lectures on black issues at conventions sponsored by powerful black institutions. She also encouraged black Americans to support the cause of World War I and worked to have black veterans granted full respect.
After the bloody East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917, Madam Walker devoted herself to having lynching made a federal crime. In 1918 she was the keynote speaker at many National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fund raisers for the anti-lynching effort throughout the Midwest and East. She was honored later that summer by the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) for making the largest contribution to saving the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. She donated large sums of money to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign and later in her life revised her will to support black schools, organizations, individuals, orphanages, retirement homes, as well as YWCAs and YMCAs.
Builders completed construction of Madam Walker’s home, Villa Lewaro, in August of 1918 in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. Her neighbors included industrialists Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. The grand estate served not only as her home but also as a meeting place for summits of race leaders to discuss current issues.
Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro at the age of 51 on Sunday, May 25, 1919 from complications of hypertension. Upon her death she was considered to be the wealthiest African-American woman in America and known to be the first African-American woman millionaire. Some sources cite her as the first self-made American woman millionaire. Her daughter Lelia succeeded her as president of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.”
Madam C.J. Walker – 1867-1919 Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Social Activist
Stephanie Benney is a “Sustainable Visionary” and also the new Pittsburgh Representative for Fuzed Marketing, where she helps companies increase their brand presence. firstname.lastname@example.org