Nevertheless, She Persisted: Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove)

“You, too, may be a fascinating beauty” is a headline from a magazine advertisement for Madam Walker products; possibly the best assessment ever of the potential beauty products hold in the mind of the consumer, right up there with “hope in a jar.”

Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)

Sarah Breedlove was born to freed slaves on a Louisiana plantation two years after the end of the Civil War. She was orphaned at age 7, married at age 14, and widowed at age 16, with a young daughter to look after.

And then, in her twenties, a dermatological condition made her hair fall out.

And so she set about inventing her own cure. She’d say say later that the idea for the ingredients came to her in a dream: “…a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. I made up my mind I would begin to sell it.”

Her third husband, Charles J. Walker– a journalist who had experience in advertising — suggested she take the nom d’entreprise “Madam C.J. Walker.”

The success of her first product–“Wonderful Hair Grower” — led to the development of other products and implements, which Madam Walker and her husband would demonstrate at meetings held in various cities across the southern United States.

Eventually, Madam Walker opened her own factory to mass produce the products comprising “the Walker Method.” Saying, “I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavor to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race,” she opened schools to train “Walker Agents” — African-American saleswomen who demonstrated and sold the products door-to-door. (Madam Walker also sponsored additional self-empowerment classes, such as money management, for the Walker Agents.)

Rapidly, Madam Walker was one of the first women in America to become a self-made millionaire.  And she donated her wealth and time to African-American communities and causes across the United States, including the then-nascent NAACP, as well as the National Conference on Lynching.

Her belief in supporting causes larger than herself could well serve as an inspiration for the challenges we face today: “This is the greatest country under the sun. But we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice.”



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