Article

Madam C. J. Walker: African American Millionaire, Philanthropist, Activist (Teach It!)

A woman wearing formal clothing
Madam C. J. Walker at age 42. Courtesy A'Lelia Bundles/Walker Family Collection.

Introduction

"Women's History to Teach Year-Round" provides manageable, interesting lessons that showcase women’s stories behind important historic sites. In this lesson, students explore the life of Madam C. J. Walker, a Black entrepreneur, and her success in business and social good, as exemplified by the Madam C. J. Walker Building in Indianapolis, Indiana. This lesson is adapted from the Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan, “Two American Entrepreneurs: Madam C.J. Walker and J.C. Penney.”

Background

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a time of enormous racism against African-Americans in the United States. A large majority of Black Americans lived in the rural South and were economically exploited by white property owners. Racist voting laws and violence from white vigilantes kept African-Americans from gaining political power.

Despite these conditions, a small number of African-Americans were able to earn money and fame. Madam C. J. Walker, a Black entrepreneur, built an enormously successful enterprise in hair and beauty products designed specifically for Black women. Walker used her position of influence to advocate for African-Americans.

United States History Standards for Grades 5-12

Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)

  • Standard 3A - The student understands the political controversy over Reconstruction.
  • Standard 3C - The student understands the successes and failures of Reconstruction in the South, North, and West.

Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)

  • Standard 2B - The student understands “scientific racism”, race relations, and the struggle for equal rights.
  • Standard 2C - The student understands how new cultural movements at different social levels affected American life.
  • Standard 3A - The student understands how the “second industrial revolution” changed the nature and conditions of work.

  • Standard 3C - The student understands how Americans grappled with social, economic, and political issues.
Four women riding in a car
Madam C. J. Walker (driving) and several of her friends. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

Reading

Madam Walker was born as Sarah Breedlove in December 1867, in Delta, Louisiana. Her parents, Minerva and Owen Breedlove, had been enslaved. During Sarah’s youth, they worked as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation and lived in a one-room cabin. Sharecropping was an unfair economic situation where African Americans did agricultural labor for very low pay because they could not afford to go anywhere else. Many sharecroppers worked for the people who had once enslaved them. The sharecropping system was common in the South after the Civil War.

By the time she was five, Sarah had learned to carry water to field hands, plant cotton seeds, and, for a dollar a week, wash white people's clothes with strong lye soap, wooden sticks, and washboards. By the time she was seven, both of Sarah's parents had died, and she moved in with her older sister Louvenia. A few years later, after a failure of the cotton crop, the sisters moved across the river to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they worked as washerwomen and domestic servants.

At 14, Sarah married Moses McWilliams to escape abuse from her brother-in-law. At 17, she gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Lelia. Moses died in 1887, when Sarah was only 19. She and her young daughter set off for St. Louis where, she was told, laundress jobs were plentiful and fairly well paid. For the next 17 years, Sarah supported herself and her daughter. She mainly worked as a washerwoman, but she also worked as a sales agent for Annie Turnbo, who creaed hair products for Black women. Never having received much formal education herself, Sarah was determined to provide her daughter with schooling opportunities.1 She sent Lelia to both grade school and college.

Now in her thirties, Sarah realized, to her dismay, that her hair was falling out. Inspired by Turnbo's success, Sarah began mixing her own formulas and eventually developed one that worked. She later told a reporter that God had "answered my prayer, for one night I had a dream, and in that dream 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, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind I would begin to sell it."2

Because St. Louis already had several cosmetic companies, Sarah decided to move to another city to set up her own business. She chose Denver because she had family who lived there. Sarah arrived in Denver in 1905 with $1.50 in savings. Working as a cook to pay her rent, Sarah spent the rest of her time mixing her hair growth products and selling them door to door. In the early 1900s, many women suffered from hair loss due to scalp disease. Sarah’s products met a demand in the market and the business grew rapidly.

Exterior of a large building
The Madam C. J. Walker Building today. Courtesy Nyttend, WikiMedia Commons.

In 1906, Sarah married C. J. Walker, a newspaper salesman she had known from St. Louis. From then on, Sarah began calling herself Madam (sometimes spelled Madame) C. J. Walker, invoking the French title used in the cosmetics and fashion industries.3 As the business expanded, C. J. Walker helped his wife develop marketing and organize a mail-order business.

Madam Walker’s business model involved both mail-order sales and door-to-door sales. Walker’s saleswomen, called “Walker Agents,” did more than just sell products. Walker Agents also gave scalp treatments, styled hair, and did manicures and massages. Working as a Walker agent was empowering for African-American women. Many former schoolteachers, cooks, and washerwomen were able to earn far more money than they could before. One agent wrote that Walker "opened up a trade for hundreds of colored women to make an honest and profitable living where they make as much in one week as a month's salary would bring from any other position that a colored woman can secure."4

In 1908, Walker moved to Pittsburgh, where she established Lelia College, a training facility for Walker employees. In 1910, Walker decided to move her headquarters to Indianapolis. The city was the United States' largest inland manufacturing center and was home to a thriving African-American community. Madam Walker built a factory, hair and nail salon, and another training school. By 1913, Madam Walker had divorced her husband and placed Lelia as her second-in-command. At Lelia’s urging, Madam Walker also built a beauty salon and training school in Harlem, the center of African-American culture in New York.

Having once lived in desperate poverty, Madam Walker enjoyed her wealth. In 1916 she built her dream house, a mansion in a wealthy community north of New York City. Yet she believed her primary responsibility was in advocating for African-Americans. Through her business, she sold hair products that encouraged Black women to feel proud of their natural hair and helped thousands of African-American Walker Agents achieve financial success. Walker was also a philanthropist and activist. She donated large amounts of her fortune to African-American organizations and encouraged her employees to donate as well. In 1917, she helped organize a protest after white rioters in East St. Louis massacred dozens of African-Americans.5 That same year, she went to the White House to urge President Wilson to make lynching a federal crime.6

Madam Walker died early, at the age of 51. In her will, she directed two-thirds of her estate’s future net profits to charity organizations. Before she died, Walker had planned to build a new headquarters building in Indianapolis that would also serve as a commercial center for African-Americans. Madam Walker’s daughter, who had changed her name to A’Lelia (ah-LEEL-ya), oversaw the completion of the new Walker Building. When the building was finished in 1927, it indeed fulfilled Madam Walker’s goal of creating a community space. In addition to the headquarters of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, the building also housed the Walker Theater, Walker Drug Store, Walker Casino, Walker Beauty Shop, a ballroom, and a coffee shop. African-American doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who had difficulty finding office space in buildings owned by whites rented space in the Walker Building as well.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you describe Walker’s childhood?
  2. Why did Walker move to Denver?
  3. Why would African-American women want to work as Walker Agents?
  4. What factors do you think made Walker's business so successful?
  5. Look up the term “corporate responsibility,” then define it in your own words. How did Walker promote corporate responsibility?
  6. In what ways did the Walker Building carry on Madam Walker’s legacy?

Activity 1: Advertising Then and Now

Madam C. J. Walker’s company continued to be successful after her death in 1919. The advertisement below is from the 1930s. Have students observe the advertisement and read the transcript twice. They should then answer the questions below, working either individually or in small groups.

Image: Beauty Advertisement

A woman putting on makeup. There are many paragraphs of text.
Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Walker Collection.

Transcript
You, too, may be a fascinating beauty
Perhaps you envy the girl with irresistible beauty, whose skin is flawless and velvety, whose hair has a beautiful silky sheen, the girl who receives glances of undoubted admiration.
You need not envy her. Create new beauty for yourself by using Madam C. J. Walker's famous beauty preparations.
When Madam Walker and her associates started to develop her beauty preparations, which are now used all over the world, they perfected their toiletries step by step.
Each preparation was beyond the point of experiment before it was followed by another. Each preparation's wide use and higher merit were always proved. Today they are unsurpassed.
Try these products and you won't have reason to envy another girl her lovely hair and her charming complexion.
You can obtain any of these marvelous preparations at your nearest druggist or from a Madam C. J. Walker agent (there's one near you) or write the company direct at Indianapolis.

Madam C. J. Walker's Beauty Preparations

Complexion and Toilet Soap--A preservative of beauty--mild and safe for the most tender skin. Perfumed delightfully. 20 cents per large bar.
Vegetable Oil--Antiseptic Soap--A popular-priced household soap of purest vegetable oils. Lathers well in hardest water, removes grease and dirt, yet will not harm a lady's skin. A bargain at 10 cents a bar.
Superfine Face Powder (Brown)--Clinging, velvety smooth, invisible and adorably perfumed. Imparts an olive tint to fair complexions and harmonizes bewitchingly with darker skins. Obtainable in rose-flesh and white. 50 cents per sealed box.
Glossine--Oils and softens dry, brittle hair. Imparts a rich, healthy lustre. Indispensable for bobbed hair and unsurpassed in the opinion of social leaders and well-groomed gentlemen. 35 cents per long-lasting box.

These are but four of eighteen Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Preparations—As fine as money can buy


Questions for Image

  1. Have students use an online inflation calculator, such as this one from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, to estimate what the prices of Walker’s products would be like today. Were Madam C. J. Walker’s products affordable?
  2. What strategies does the advertisement use to sell the products? Mark the places in the text where the advertisement uses these different strategies.
  3. Find a present-day advertisement for a beauty product or products. The advertisement can be either print or digital. What strategies does this advertisement use to sell the product? How are its strategies similar to the strategies the Madam C. J. Walker advertisement uses? How are they different?

Activity 2: Madam Walker Startles a Convention

Divide students into small groups. Have students read Document 1 out loud in their small groups. Then have the groups answer the questions below. For an extra challenge, after the student groups have completed the questions for Document 1, distribute Document 2 and have students complete the attached questions.

Document 1: Madam Walker’s Speech, 1912
At the Thirteenth Annual Convention of the National Negro Business League in 1912, no women were included on the schedule of speakers. Madam Walker shocked the participants when she walked up and claimed the podium from moderator Booker T. Washington. The following is an excerpt of her speech.

Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face. I feel that I am in a business that is a credit to the womanhood of our race. I am a woman who started in business seven years ago with only $1.50. . . .this year (up to the 19th day of this month . . .) I had taken in $18,000. (Prolonged applause). This makes a grand total of $63,049 made in my hair business in Indianapolis. (Applause.) I have been trying to get before you business people to tell you what I am doing. I am a woman that came from the cotton fields of the South; I was promoted from there to the wash-tub (laughter); then I was promoted to the cook kitchen, and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. . . . I am not ashamed of my past; I am not ashamed of my humble beginning. Don't think that because you have to go down in the wash-tub that you are any less a lady! (prolonged applause.)

Questions for Document 1

  1. What does Madam Walker mean by “the wash-tub”?
  2. Why do you think the audience might have laughed when Madam Walker said, “I was promoted from there to the wash-tub”?
  3. What were the demographics of the audience at the Convention of the National Negro Business League? Think about race, gender, and wealth.
  4. What does Madam Walker mean by a “lady”?
  5. What do you think is Madam Walker’s main message?

Document 2: Madam Walker’s Speech, 1913
The following year, the Fourteenth Annual Convention of the National Negro Business League invited Madam Walker to be a keynote speaker. The following is an excerpt of her speech.

I have made it possible for many colored women to abandon the wash-tub for more pleasant and profitable occupation. (Hearty applause.) Now I realize that in the so-called higher walks of life, many were prone to look down upon "hair dressers" as they called us; they didn't have a very high opinion of our calling, so I had to go down and dignify this work, so much so that many of the best women of our race are now engaged in this line of business, and many of them are now in my employ.

Questions for Document 2

  1. What was Madam Walker referring to when she said, “I have made it possible for many colored women to abandon the wash-tub for more pleasant and profitable occupation”?
  2. What did Madam Walker mean by the “so-called higher walks of life”? Why did these people look down on hair dressers?
  3. What did Madam Walker mean when she said that she “dignified” hair dressing?
  4. What do you think is the main message of this speech?
  5. Is the message of this speech compatible or incompatible with the speech Madame Walker gave in 1912?


Document 1 is excerpted from the Report of the Thirteenth Annual Convention of the National Negro Business League, Chicago, IL, August 21-23, 1912, William H. Davis, Official Stenographer, Washington, D.C., 154-55. Document 2 is excerpted from the Report of the Fourteenth Annual Convention of the National Negro Business League, Philadelphia, PA, August 20-22, 1913, William H. Davis, Official Stenographer, Washington, D.C., 210-212. These documents were provided by A'Lelia Perry Bundles.

1 A'Lelia [Perry] Bundles, “Madam C.J. Walker: Business Savvy to Philanthropy,” eJournal USA 16 no. 6 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, February 2012), https://photos.state.gov/libraries/amgov/30145/publications-english/Black_Women_Leaders_eJ.pdf, 3.
2 A'Lelia Perry Bundles, Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991), 35.
3 Bundles, “Madam C.J. Walker: Business Savvy to Philanthropy,” 3.
4 A'Lelia Perry Bundles, "Madame C.J. Walker: Cosmetics Tycoon," Ms. (July 1983), 93.
5 Bundles, “Madam C.J. Walker: Business Savvy to Philanthropy,” 5.
6 Bundles, “Madam C.J. Walker: Business Savvy to Philanthropy,” 5.

Last updated: October 26, 2020