As I explained in my memoir, Colored People, “So many black people still get their hair straightened that it’s a wonder we don’t have a national holiday for Madame C.J. Walker, who invented the process for straightening kinky hair, rather than for Dr. King.” I was joking, of course, but mostly about the holiday; the history and politics of African-American hair have been as charged as any “do” in our culture, and somewhere in the story, Madam C.J. Walker usually makes an appearance.
Madam C.J. Walker. Photo courtesy A’Lelia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Collection.
Most people who’ve heard of her will tell you one or two things: She was the first black millionairess, and she invented the world’s first hair-straightening formula and/or the hot comb. Only one is factual, sort of, but the amazing story behind it and how Madam Walker used that accomplishment to help others as a job creator and philanthropist might be jarring — and surprisingly empowering — even to the skeptics. I know it was for me in revisiting her life for this column.
Thanks to the work of numerous historians, among them Madam Walker’s prolific great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, as well as Nancy Koehn and my colleagues at Harvard Business School, I no longer see one straight line from “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” to current menus of extensions, braids and weaves; nor do I see a single line connecting this brilliant, determined person — who struggled doggedly for a life out of poverty, and for black beauty, pride and her own legitimacy (in the face of black male resistance) as a black business woman during the worst of the Jim Crow era — to the most successful black women on the stage today.
“Up From” Sarah Breedlove
On December 23, 1867, Sarah Breedlove was born to two former slaves on a plantation in Delta, La., just a few months after the second Juneteenth was celebrated one state over in Texas. While the rest of her siblings had been born on the other side of emancipation, Sarah was free. But by 7, she was an orphan toiling in those same cotton fields. To escape her abusive brother-in-law’s household, Sarah married at 14, and together she and Moses McWilliams had one daughter, Lelia (later “A’Lelia Walker”), before Moses mysteriously died.
Now that Reconstruction, too, was dead in the South, Sarah moved north to St. Louis, where a few of her brothers had taken up as barbers, themselves having left the Delta as “exodusters” some years before. Living on $1.50 a day as a laundress and cook, Sarah struggled to send Lelia to school — and did — while joining the A.M.E. church, where she networked with other city dwellers, including those in the fledgling National Association of Colored Women.
In 1894, Sarah tried marrying again, but her second husband, John Davis, was less than reliable, and he was unfaithful. At 35, her life remained anything but certain. “I was at my tubs one morning with a heavy wash before me,” she later told the New York Times. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds, I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’ ”
Adding to Sarah’s woes was the fact that she was losing her hair. As her great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles explains in an essay she posted on America.gov’s Archive: “During the early 1900s, when most Americans lacked indoor plumbing and electricity, bathing was a luxury. As a result, Sarah and many other women were going bald because they washed their hair so infrequently, leaving it vulnerable to environmental hazards such as pollution, bacteria and lice.”
In the lead-up to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Sarah’s personal and professional fortune began to turn when she discovered the “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower” of Annie Turnbo(later Malone), an Illinois native with a background in chemistry who’d relocated her hair-straightening business to St. Louis. It more than worked, and within a year Sarah went from using Turnbo’s products to selling them as a local agent. Perhaps not coincidentally, around the same time, she began dating Charles Joseph (“C.J.”) Walker, a savvy salesman for the St. Louis Clarion.
A little context and review: Along the indelible color line that court cases like Plessy v. Ferguson drew, blacks in turn-of-the-century America were excluded from most trade unions and denied bank capital, resulting in trapped lives as sharecroppers or menial, low-wage earners. One of the only ways out, as my colleague Nancy Koehn and others reveal in their2007 study of Walker, was to start a business in a market segmented by Jim Crow. Hair care and cosmetics fit the bill. The start-up costs were low. Unlike today’s big multinationals, white businesses were slow to respond to blacks’ specific needs. And there was a slew of remedies to improve upon from well before slavery. Turnbo saw this opportunity and, in creating her “Poro” brand, seized it as part of a larger movement that witnessed the launch of some 10,000 to 40,000 black-owned businesses between 1883 and 1913. Now it was Sarah’s turn.
The Walker System
While still a Turnbo agent, Sarah stepped out of her boss’ shadow in 1905 by relocating to Denver, where her sister-in-law’s family resided (apparently, she’d heard black women’s hair suffered in the Rocky Mountains’ high but dry air). C.J. soon followed, and in 1906 the two made it official — marriage No. 3 and a new business start — with Sarah officially changing her name to “Madam C.J. Walker.”
Around the same time, she awoke from a dream, in which, in her words: “A big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.” It was to be called “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” Her initial investment: $1.25.
Sarah’s industry had its critics, among them the leading black institution-builder of the day, Booker T. Washington, who worried (to his credit) that hair-straighteners (and, worse, skin-bleaching creams) would lead to the internalization of white concepts of beauty. Perhaps she was mindful of this, for she was deft in communicating that her dream was not emulative of whites, but divinely inspired, and, like Turnbo’s “Poro Method,” African in origin.
However, Walker went a step further. You see, the name Poro “came from a West African term for a devotional society, reflecting Turnbo’s concern for the welfare and the roots of the women she served,” according to a 2007 Harvard Business School case study. Whereas Turnbo took her product’s name from an African word, Madame C.J. claimed that the crucial ingredients for her product were African in origin. (And on top of that, she gave it a name uncomfortably close to Turnbo’s “Wonderful Hair Grower.”)
It wouldn’t be the only permanent sticking point between the two: Some claim it was Turnbo, not Walker, who became the first black woman to reach a million bucks. One thing about her startup was different, however: Walker’s brand, with the “Madam” in front, had the advantage of French cache, while defying many white people’s tendency to refer to black women by their first names, or, worse, as “Auntie.”
Of course, many would-be entrepreneurs start off with a dream. The reason we’re still talking about Walker’s is her prescience, and her success in the span of just a dozen years. In pumping her “Wonderful Hair Grower” door-to-door, at churches and club gatherings, then through a mail-order catalog, Walker proved to be a marketing magician, and she sold her customers more than mere hair products. She offered them a lifestyle, a concept of total hygiene and beauty that in her mind would bolster them with pride for advancement.
To get the word out, Walker also was masterful in leveraging the power of America’s burgeoning independent black newspapers (in some cases, her ads kept them afloat). It was hard to miss Madam Walker whenever reading up on the latest news, and in her placements, she was a pioneer at using black women — actually, herself — as the faces in both her beforeand after shots, when others had typically reserved the latter for white women only (That was the dream, wasn’t it? the photos implied).
At the same time, Walker had the foresight to incorporate in 1910, and even when she couldn’t attract big-name backers, she invested $10,000 of her own money, making herself sole shareholder of the new Walker Manufacturing Company, headquartered at a state-of-the-art factory and school in Indianapolis, itself a major distribution hub.
Perhaps most important, Madam Walker transformed her customers into evangelical agents, who, for a handsome commission, multiplied her ability to reach new markets while providing them with avenues up out of poverty, much like Turnbo had provided her. In short order, Walker’s company had trained some 40,000 “Walker Agents” at an ever-expanding number of hair-culture colleges she founded or set up through already established black institutions. And there was a whole “Walker System” for them to learn, from vegetable shampoos to cold creams, witch hazel, diets and those controversial hot combs.
Contrary to legend, Madam Walker didn’t invent the hot comb. According to A’Lelia Bundles’ biography of Walker in Black Women in America, a Frenchman, Marcel Grateau, popularized it in Europe in the 1870s, and even Sears and Bloomingdale’s advertised the hair-straightening styling tool in their catalogs in the 1880s. But Walker did improve the hot comb with wider teeth, and as a result of its popularity, sales sizzled.
Careful to position herself as a “hair culturalist,” Walker was building a vast social network of consumer-agents united by their dreams of looking — and thus feeling — different, from the heartland of America to the Caribbean and parts of Central America. Whether it stimulated emulation or empowerment was the debate — and in many ways it still is. One thing, though, was for sure: It was big business. No — huge! “Open your own shop; secure prosperity and freedom,” one of Madam Walker’s brochures announced. Those who enrolled in “Lelia College” even received a diploma.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Walker had the Mona Lisa of black-beauty brands. Among the most ridiculous knockoffs was the white-owned “Madam Mamie Hightower” company. To keep others at bay, Walker insisted on placing a special seal with her likeness on every package. So successful, so quickly, was Walker in solidifying her presence in the consumer’s mind that when her marriage to C.J. fell apart in 1912, she insisted on keeping his name. After all, she’d already made it more famous.
To keep her agents more loyal, Walker organized them into a national association and offered cash incentives to those who promoted her values. In the same way, she organized the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association in 1917. “I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself,” Walker said in 1914. “I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.” And for her it wasn’t just about pay; Walker wanted to train her fellow black women to be refined. As she explained in her 1915 manual, Hints to Agents, “Open your windows — air it well … Keep your teeth clean in order that [your] breath might be sweet … See that your fingernails are kept clean, as that is a mark of refinement.”
Reading this, I instantly thought of Booker T. Washington, “the wizard of Tuskegee,” who, while troubled by the black beauty industry, shared Walker’s obsession with cleanliness. In fact, Washington made it critical to his school’s curriculum, preaching “the gospel of the toothbrush,” writes Suellen Hoy in her interesting history, Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness. “I never see … an unpainted or unwhitewashed house that I do not want to paint or whitewash it,” Washington himself wrote in his memoir, Up From Slavery.
I have no doubt this topic would’ve made for interesting conversation between Washington and Walker (after all, having come from similar places, weren’t they after similar things with not dissimilar risks?). Yet, try as Walker did to curry Washington’s favor, her initial forays only met his grudging acknowledgment, even though many of the wives Washington knew, including his own — the wives of the very ministers denouncing products like Walker’s — were dreaming of the same straight styles.
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