In 1966 my teenage sister came home shorn of her shoulder-length, straightened hair and sporting a short Afro. My mother, A’Lelia Ransom Nelson, the last president of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, producers of hair care products for black women since 1906, had a fit. Her objections to my sister’s new nappy hair did not spring from aesthetic or political distaste, but had economic reasons. She viewed my sister’s short, natural haircut as a betrayal of the business that was responsible for the upward mobility and educational advancement of her family, as well as numerous other black families. For her, it was simple logic that the daughter of the company president should wear long, straightened hair, as an advertisement for Walker products. (Ironically, by the mid-1970s my mother had her own fluffy silver Afro; a decade later the company would be out of business.)
The Madam C.J. Walker Company was founded at the turn of the century by Sarah Breedlove, born the daughter of slaves in Delta, Louisiana, who transformed herself from a washerwoman into a businesswoman and gave herself the title Madam. At the time of her death in 1919 at age fifty-one, her company had trained and employed 20,000 Negro women as hairdressers and commissioned sales agents. Thanks to trips she’d made in the early 1900s to Cuba, Haiti, Panama, and elsewhere, her products were sold throughout the Caribbean. The New York Times in a 1917 magazine feature placed her fortune at “a cool million, or nearly that,” while company propaganda boasted of her being the first self-made female millionaire. Walker left an estate valued at $600,000, equivalent to $6 million today, a mansion in Irvington, New York, called Villa Lewaro, named by Enrico Caruso, a friend of her daughter, A’Lelia, and built by the black architect Vertner Tandy.
In On Her Own Ground, A’Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker’s great-great- granddaughter, has written a family history which provides an interesting picture of African-American life at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth. Having had to face the difficulty of sifting through the lies and secrets that passed down through generations of her family and became truth through their repetition, she has managed to give an entertaining and convincing account of how Sarah Breedlove, born of former slaves two years after Emancipation, orphaned at seven, a mother at seventeen, and a widow before she was twenty, became the “millionaire” businesswoman Madam C.J. Walker, and created a model of success for Negro women.
Breedlove’s parents had been slaves since at least 1847, working on the plantation of one Robert W. Burney, a wealthy cotton farmer whose more than a thousand acres and sixty slaves placed him among the top 10 percent of Southern planters. Burney’s land was confiscated by Union soldiers in 1865, but Breedlove’s family remained there as sharecroppers on land alternately subject to flood and drought. Born in 1867, Sarah was the first of their children not to have been born a slave. By the time she was two, a bumper cotton crop enabled her parents, Owen and Minerva Breedlove, to pay the $100 marriage bond and wed, thus legitimizing their twenty-year union and their six children. When Sarah was five, Minerva died, possibly of cholera. Owen died two years later.
As a small child, Sarah worked alongside her parents in the fields, chopping cotton. In 1874, when she would have entered first grade, the public schools in Louisiana were closed after the legislature refused to fund them and the Freedman’s Bureau disbanded its education division. Three years later, federal troops left the former Confederate states; their absence opened the way for a reign of terror that drove thousands of blacks from the South. In 1889 Sarah Breedlove, twenty-one years old and the single mother of a three-year-old daughter, Leila, followed her older brothers north to St. Louis.
There were plenty of saloons, brothels, and cheap bathhouses in the St. Louis neighborhood where Breedlove found work as a washerwoman. It was a place so dangerous that local police called it “the Bad Lands.” (In 1895, it became famous when, inside Curtis’s Elite Saloon, four blocks from where Breedlove lived, Shelton “Stack” Lee shot William Lyons to death for stealing his magic Stetson hat, an event memorialized in the popular song “Stackalee.”) Once settled, Breedlove joined St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, which, like other black churches of the time, had a congregation of sympathetic black people who offered her leads on jobs, advice on comportment, and (although meager) financial help, which enabled her to put Lelia, not yet five, into the hands of the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home for part of the week while she worked as a washerwoman.
In her late twenties, the future Madam Walker discovered that her hair was falling out, a condition probably owing to a combination of inadequate hygiene and nervous stress, the latter exacerbated by an unfaithful and brutal second husband. She prayed for help. According to what would become her creation myth, she received nothing less than divine inspiration from God. “For one night I had a dream, and in that dream a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix for my hair. Some of the remedy was from Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”
The “dream” was a mixture of Christian faith and the magic of traditional African religions; it was also a clever marketing device. The reality was that a small company in Illinois founded by another black woman, Annie Pope-Turnbo, was promoting a shampoo and tonic that purported to help solve the hair problems of black women. Pope-Turnbo had arrived in St. Louis in 1902 to plan a strategy for attracting visitors to the 1904 World’s Fair. She set up shop and began giving black women scalp and hair-growing treatments. According to Pope-Turnbo, Breedlove was one of her first customers. A year later Pope-Turnbo hired her to become one of her first sales agents, a position that likely gave her access to Pope-Turnbo’s formula.
Breedlove was finally able to quit washing clothes for white folks. Used to backbreaking physical work, she must have been drawn to the genteel and relatively lucrative work that Pope- Turnbo’s company offered. In 1905, she moved to Denver to sell Pope-Turnbo’s Wonderful Hair Grower, where she married her third and last husband, C.J. Walker, who fancied himself a showman and promoter but may well have simply been a philanderer and con man. When she divorced him in 1912, she kept his name, added “Madam,” and began selling her own line of products, doubtless a modification of Pope-Turnbo’s formula.1 For the remainder of their lives, Pope-Turnbo and Walker remained bitter rivals. While both women, Bundles points out,
made much of their proprietary mixtures,…the real secret was a regimen of regular shampoos, scalp massage, nutritious food, and an easily duplicated, sulfur-based formula that neither of them had originated. Home remedies and medicinal compounds with similar ingredients had been prescribed at least since the sixteenth century.
Both women understood that the desire to escape menial work and to improve their physical appearance was shared by millions of other Negro women both married and single, virtually all of them the descendants of slaves. Most of these women worked as domestics. (At the turn of the century, 65 percent of all washerwomen were Negro.) Breedlove soon combined this perception with her instinctive sense of marketing. The legend of herself that she promoted romanticized both her origins and those of her products. Made up of tales of struggle and divine intervention, it struck a chord with her black female contemporaries, who were at first attracted to her products and then the training program she founded for women to become entrepreneurs themselves.
Walker’s use of agents to sell her products was, of course, hardly new. Indeed, through the years, Pope-Turnbo’s company was a strong competitor. But what distinguished Walker was her aggressive use of almost any occasion, public or private, as an opportunity for sales and publicity. Indeed, after her death, neither her daughter A’Lelia nor anyone else associated with the company was able to match her ability to create sales and publicity in almost any situation.
Walker appears to have been both tireless and thick-skinned in pursuit of the people who could help her. She traveled constantly to promote her products, and almost daily wrote letters home with many ideas and suggestions for her business. It is hard to find any club Walker joined, church she attended, contribution she made, or guest she entertained in her home that would not have been useful to her in improving the fortunes of her company. Bundles writes,
In Florida, Georgia and Alabama during the spring of 1913, Madam Walker taught her beauty culture system to several dozen more agents, presenting them with diplomas and wiring their product orders to her secretary in the North West Street office. In hamlets too small for a train depot, Madam Walker and her traveling assistants tossed packets of promotional booklets and fliers from passenger cars as locomotives crawled by to retrieve rural route mail packages.
Walker may have been uneducated, but she possessed immense self-confidence. Bundles tells the story of Walker’s decade-long pursuit of the support of Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute and the National Negro Business League, both organizations that could be invaluable in promoting Walker products. Walker wrote letters, gave money to Tuskegee, and pursued Washington with the single-minded fervor of an unrequited lover. Except that her intentions were strictly business.
Washington, probably the most powerful Negro in America at the time, the acclaimed author of Up from Slavery, and the primary recipient of white philanthropic contributions, used his influence cautiously and was not an easy man to see. While Madam Walker was the living embodiment of his philosophy of Negro self-help, he appears to have been wary of both aggressive women and hair-straightening products, and for years he snubbed Walker’s overtures. Denied a place on the podium when she attended a convention of the three-thousand-member National Negro Business League in Chicago, Walker remained hopeful and silent until the last day of the meeting, when she realized Washington had no intention of recognizing her. She then seized the moment:
Rising from her seat, she fixed her eyes upon Washington. “Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face,” she demanded, as heads began to turn in her direction. “I feel that I am in a business that is a credit to the womanhood of our race…. I have been trying to get before you business people and tell you what I am doing,” she continued, unable to hide her… resentment. “I am a woman that came from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted from there to the washtub,” she announced proudly, amid the nervous snickering of the delegates. “Then I was promoted to the cook kitchen, and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations…. Everybody told me I was making a mistake by going into this business, but I know how to grow hair as well as I know how to grow cotton.”
By the following year Washington was staying at Walker’s house in Indianapolis at the opening of the new colored YMCA—to which Walker was a major contributor. She was invited to speak at the NNBL convention, where she was warmly greeted by Washington as “a striking example of the possibilities of Negro womanhood in the business world.”
By the early 1900s education and ambition had begun to blur class and race lines. Physical appearance in the drive to succeed and to assimilate into white society became increasingly important. The Chicago Defender, founded by Robert S. Abbott and the most influential newspaper for black Americans in the first decades of the twentieth century, while urging black migra- tion from the South, keeping score of lynchings, and, often mockingly, exposing racism in and outside government, regularly published a list of Don’ts for recent Southern immigrants: “Don’t promenade on the boulevards in your hog-killing clothes,” “Don’t clean your fingernails and pick your nose on the street,” and “Don’t flirt with the grocer, especially if your hair is still chunky and full of bed lint.”
For black women, the state of their hair said much about them before they had uttered a word. It was a statement not only of their class but of their aspirations. Long, straight hair was important both for a woman’s self-esteem and as a sign of her assimilation—even though Madam Walker herself publicly bristled at being called the “hair-straightening Queen,” insisting that her products aimed simply to help Negro women grow their hair so that it was more “manageable.”
Walker advertisements frequently portrayed Madam Walker’s humble beginnings, including a tryptich with a picture of the shack in Louisiana where she was born on the left, on the right the mansion where she ended her days, and Madam Walker, hair down past her shoulders, in the center. There was also an ad that showed Walker at the wheel of her elegant touring car in front of her factory, not so subtly making the connection between beauty, prosperity, and independence.
In 1908 Walker expanded her training system by founding Lelia College, the hair treatment institute she named after her daughter (who later, for unknown reasons, would add an “A'” to her name). The institute presented students with a diploma after teaching them “the Walker system” of hair growth, which still consisted of regular washing, clearing the scalp of dandruff, oiling and massaging the scalp—all with Walker products—and straightening with a hot comb. For women seeking something other than domestic work or the grime of factories, a Lelia College diploma offered them an impressive credential.
While the headquarters of her company would remain in Indianapolis, during the last years of her life Walker moved to New York. She bought her daughter A’Lelia a townhouse on 136th Street in Harlem to be used as the company’s New York headquarters, and supervised the construction of the Villa Lewaro. In 1912, A’Lelia Walker, childless, adopted a fatherless thirteen-year-old named Fairy Mae Bryant, the author’s grandmother. As a child, Bryant had frequently visited relatives who lived in Walker’s Indianapolis neighborhood, and there she likely met both Madam Walker and A’Lelia and may have distributed flyers and delivered products for the company. Doubtless Fairy Mae’s thick, straight hair that hung past her waist caught the eye of both mother and daughter, and her photograph was used in Walker ads for years. In adopting her, A’Lelia had promised Fairy Mae’s mother that they would see to her education, but she was kept so busy displaying her long hair for the company that she did not return to school until she was seventeen.
As she grew older, Madam Walker paid less attention to business and became increasingly active politically. In the year before her death Walker was part of a group attempting to influence the status of Germany’s African colonies at the Paris Peace Conference. Along with Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph, and Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr., among others, she formed the International League of Darker Peoples in an effort to unite the delegations to the Paris Peace Conference, which were often at odds. But she was under surveillance by the US Military Intelligence Division because she had been a delegate to W.E.B. DuBois’s Pan-African Congress in February 1919. Denied a passport to travel to France, she sent the Congress a large check.
After she died in 1919 the presidency of the company passed to A’Lelia, a physically imposing woman with a voracious appetite for art, artists, and good times, but little interest in running a company. She loved to travel, hold lavish parties, and hang out with her friends Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Enrico Caruso, the painter Aaron Douglas, and Carl Van Vechten (who immortalized her in Nigger Heaven as Adora, a rich former music hall star who lived on Striver’s Row).
A’Lelia’s greatest public relations stunt was the staging of the marriage—which was called the “Million Dollar Wedding”—of Fairy Mae to Dr. Gordon Henry Jackson, a violent man thirteen years her senior. “This is the swellest wedding any colored folks have ever had or will have in the world,” A’Lelia Walker wrote to the company’s general manager, F.B. Ransom. “While its purpose certainly is not for the advertising, God knows we are getting $50,000 worth of publicity. Everything has its compensation.” Though the marriage lasted barely three years, its notoriety briefly increased sales.
Within the two years following Madam Walker’s death, the company began its decline. Revenues were steadily eroded by increasing competition from other companies, among them Poro products. By 1931, after A’Lelia’s death at forty-six, the contents of the Villa Lewaro were sold, the Harlem townhouse rented out. When the company was sold by the Walker estate trustees in 1986, there was little left besides the building in Indianapolis, which today houses the Madam Walker Theatre Center, a cultural and education center, and a small museum containing the original products2—not to mention this modest and entertaining book, which, were she alive, Madam C.J. Walker would find a way to use to advance her goals of uplifting the race while turning a good profit.
It is suspected that she met Edmund L. Scholtz, proprietor of the Scholtz Drug Company in Denver, who offered to analyze the ingredients in Pope-Turnbo’s formula and suggested that, with a few minor changes, she could create her own product line. ↩
In 1953 the presidency of the company came to my mother, the only daughter of F.B. Ransom, the general manager of the Walker Company from 1910 until his death in the late 1940s. She got the job because Madam Walker’s will stipulated that the company president must always be a woman. Even though headquarters at the time were in Indianapolis, and we lived in New York, we were steeped in Walker Company products, history, and mythology. ↩