How Madam C.J. Walker Used Beauty Products to Create Opportunities for African American Women
On March 20, Netflix debuted Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker. Our National Museum of African American History and Culture, our Transcription Center, and our National Portrait Gallery joined forces on social media to share some facts and objects related to Walker's noteworthy life, to capture increased interest in the groundbreaking businesswoman. Here is Walker's story.
Born Sarah Breedlove, Madam C.J. Walker was the daughter of formerly enslaved parents. In her early years, Walker lived in Delta, Louisiana, moving to Vicksburg, Mississippi, following the death of her parents. #BecauseofHerstory #HiddenHerstory #SelfMade pic.twitter.com/NWwXf4yk9F— Smithsonian NMAAHC (@NMAAHC) March 20, 2020
Madam C. J. Walker became one of the most successful African American entrepreneurs of the early 20th century by creating a line of extremely popular hair care and beauty products for African Americans. She also helped other women succeed as an educator and philanthropist.
A post shared by National Portrait Gallery (@smithsoniannpg) on Mar 20, 2020 at 6:42am PDT
In 1867, Walker was born Sarah Breedlove. She was the first child in her family born into freedom. She was orphaned at age seven and moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi. She married Moses McWilliams in 1882, and then went on to have a daughter, A'Lelia. Moses died two years after A'Lelia's birth. Working as a laundress and in other jobs, she lived in relative poverty for many years.
When she began to struggle with hair issues in the 1890s, Walker started creating treatments by mixing items from her local drugstore. She trained at Poro College, which focused on helping African American women learn about black hair and skin care to create their own beauty care businesses. Walker then worked as a sales agent for Annie Turnbo Malone, who founded Poro College. In 1906, she started her own company, using the "Walker Method" to sell hair products door-to-door in the South. ""Madam"" was a common name used by businesswomen at the time.
Based on her success with the Walker Method, Walker soon opened a factory and beauty school in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1908. She then travelled through Central America and the Caribbean to sell products, taking her company international.
In 1916, she purchased a townhome in Harlem, New York. Her home included a beauty parlor, beauty school, and living quarters. Beyond teaching young women about the beauty industry so they could start careers as Walker sales agents, Walker donated money to educational and social service organizations dedicated to serving African Americans. She was aware of the struggles of living in poverty as a woman and young mother in the South. Her giving focused on helping African Americans overcome racist policies and practices and achieve full citizenship.
When she passed away in 1919, Walker was reputed to be an early African American woman millionaire.
You can learn more about Walker online by viewing and transcribing historic materials from the Madam C.J. Walker collection in our National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Madam C.J. Walker by Addison N. Scurlock, around 1914. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of A'Lelia Bundles/ Walker Family.