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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.