C.J. Walker said to be first female African-American millionaire

By Murphy Browne Tuesday December 24 2013 in Opinion
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MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)


“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”


Quote attributed to Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker (Madam C. J. Walker) from the 2002 book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker written by A’Lelia Bundles.

 

Madam C. J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 two years after slavery was abolished in the USA. She was born in Delta, Louisiana to Owen and Minerva Breedlove and was the first freeborn person in her family as her parents and older siblings had been enslaved until 1865. Madam C. J. Walker, as she came to be known after her third marriage to Charles Joseph Walker on January 4, 1906, is acknowledged as the first African-American woman millionaire. Her story is one of “rags to riches” by dint of hard work and entrepreneurship. Her parents who lived and worked on the plantation where they had been enslaved both transitioned before she was seven years old leaving her and her siblings orphans. The uncertainty of being shuttled between relatives after losing her parents is speculated as the reason Sarah Breedlove married Moses McWilliams in 1881 when she was only 14 years old. Four years later she gave birth to her only child, a daughter A’Lelia McWilliams and two years later, at 20 years old, Sarah Breedlove McWilliams was a widow and her two year old daughter fatherless.

 

Several sources claim that Moses McWilliams was lynched by a White mob in 1887. In her 2002 book “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker” author A’Lelia Bundles, who is Walker’s great, great grand-daughter, writes: With no death certificate and no dependable oral history from Sarah Breedlove herself, it is unlikely that anyone will ever know whether Moses McWilliams was one of the 95 people whose lynchings were documented in 1888.”

 

The fact that Breedlove was never recorded speaking about her husband being lynched is hardly surprising. If she had witnessed the lynching she may have been so traumatized that she could not speak of the horror of witnessing such an event. The absence of a death certificate for an African-American lynched by a White mob is hardly likely to have concerned the White supremacist government.

 

In January 1892 the Chicago Tribune published a list of the numbers of African-Americans who had been lynched from 1882 to 1891 and 70 African-Americans had been lynched in 1887. Whatever tragedy led to Breedlove McWilliams being widowed in 1887, she and her two-year-old child were left without a husband and father and she had to provide clothing, food and shelter for herself and her child. She moved to St Louis, Missouri where she worked as a washerwoman to support her family of two. Following a second marriage to John Davis (August 11, 1894) where she was subjected to domestic violence she fled and eventually married her third husband Charles Joseph Walker on January 4, 1906 and changed her name to Madam C. J. Walker.

 

In 1906 Walker founded the “Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company” in Denver and her first two products were “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” and a vegetable-based shampoo. She traveled across the USA, the Caribbean and Latin America marketing and promoting “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” eventually establishing Lelia College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which trained women to sell her products door-to-door and provide hair-care for African-American women. By 1910 she had more than 1,000 sales agents and had moved to Indianapolis where she established the headquarters of “Madame C. J. Walker Laboratories” to manufacture cosmetics and opened another training school to train her salespeople. As a pioneer of the modern cosmetics industry and an advocate of women’s economic independence she provided above average wages for thousands of African-American women who otherwise would have been relegated to working as farm and domestic labourers.

 

Walker is known as the woman who made a fortune encouraging African-American women to straighten their hair. In “On Her Own Ground” Bundles writes: “It would be years before I would learn that her Walker System was intended to treat the scalp disease that was so rampant in the early 1900s, when many women washed their hair only once a month.

 

“Right here let me correct the erroneous impression held by some that I claim to straighten hair,” she told a reporter in 1918 after she had been called the “de-kink queen” by a White newspaper. “I deplore such an impression because I have always held myself out as a hair culturist. I grow hair.”

 

Walker was also a philanthropist who gave back to her community including $1,000 in 1911 to build a new YMCA in Indianapolis for African-Americans. Shortly after moving to Harlem in 1916 she contributed $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement. As a political activist, in July 1917 when a White mob massacred African-Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois, Walker joined a group of Harlem leaders who visited the White House to present a petition advocating federal anti-lynching legislation.

 

At her “Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention” in Philadelphia in 1917 considered one of the first national meetings of businesswomen Walker reportedly said to the gathering: 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. We should protest until the American sense of justice is so aroused that such affairs as the East St. Louis riot be forever impossible.”

 

The story of Madam C.J. Walker finding fame and fortune with a business plan encouraging African-American women to straighten their hair began more than 100 years ago when we felt compelled to conform to a European standard of beauty. Not much about our hair experience has changed since then. In the 2001 book, “Tenderheaded”, bell hooks, one of the contributing writers, reminds us: Despite many changes in racial politics, Black women continue to obsess about their hair, and straightening hair continues to be serious business. Individual preferences (whether rooted in self-hate or not) cannot negate the reality that our collective obsession with hair straightening reflects the psychology of oppression and the impact of racist colonization.” Even in 2013 there have been various stories in the media about African-American women and girls who have experienced negative reactions when they choose to wear their natural hair. The most recent is the story of Melphine Evans, an African-American woman who was reportedly told that she should warn her colleagues whenever she planned to wear her hair in braids because: “You intimidate and make your colleagues uncomfortable by wearing ethnic clothing and ethnic hairstyles.” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2519858/Senior-BP-executive-told-braided-hair-African-dress-staff-feel-uncomfortable-save-Black-History-Month.html)

 

Evans who worked for British Petroleum (BP) in an executive position was fired and has filed a lawsuit against BP: “According to the suit, filed with the Orange County Superior Court this week, Evans says that her supervisors told her that her dashiki and braided hair made other employees ‘uncomfortable”.

 

Celebrate Madam C.J. Walker’s birthday and in recognition of her entrepreneurial spirit and her success in business support African Canadian businesses in the spirit of the Kwanzaa principle Ujamaa (Co-operative economics.)

 

tiakoma@hotmail.com

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