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Madame C.J. Walker (1867-1919)

"I got my start by giving myself a start." - Madame CJ Walker

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Madame Walker

Madame Walker

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Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker, better known as Madame CJ Walker or Madame Walker, together with Marjorie Joyner revolutionized the hair care and cosmetics industry for African American women early in the 20th century.

Early Years

Madame CJ Walker was born in 1867 in poverty-stricken rural Louisiana. The daughter of former slaves, she was orphaned at the age of seven. Walker and her older sister survived by working in the cotton fields of Delta and Vicksburg, Mississippi. She married at age fourteen and her only daughter was born in 1885. After her husband's death two years later, she traveled to St. Louis to join her four brothers who had established themselves as barbers. Working as a laundrywoman, she managed to save enough money to educate her daughter, and became involved in activities with the National Association of Colored Women.

Inspired by Need

During the 1890s, Sarah began to suffer from a scalp ailment that caused her to lose some of her hair. Embarrassed by her appearance, she experimented with a variety of home-made remedies and products made by another black woman entrepreneur, Annie Malone. In 1905, Sarah became a sales agent for Malone and moved to Denver, where she married Charles Joseph Walker.

Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower

Changing her name to Madame CJ Walker, Sarah founded her own business and began selling her own product called Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula. To promote her products, she embarked on an exhausting sales drive throughout the South and Southeast selling her products door to door, giving demonstrations, and working on sales and marketing strategies. In 1908, she opened a college in Pittsburgh to train her "hair culturists."

The Walker System

Eventually, her products formed the basis of a thriving national corporation employing at one point over 3,000 people. Her Walker System, which included a broad offering of cosmetics, licensed Walker Agents, and Walker Schools offered meaningful employment and personal growth to thousands of Black women. Madame Walker’s aggressive marketing strategy combined with relentless ambition led her to be labeled as the first known African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire.

Having amassed a fortune in fifteen years, this pioneering businesswoman died at the age of 52. Her prescription for success was perseverance, hard work, faith in herself and in God, "honest business dealings" and of course, quality products. "There is no royal flower-strewn path to success," she once observed. "And if there is, I have not found it - for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard."

Improved Permanent Wave Machine

An employee of Madame CJ Walker’s empire, Marjorie Joyner invented an improved permanent wave machine. This device patented in 1928, curled or "permed" women’s hair for a relatively lengthy period of time. The wave machine was popular among women white and black allowing for longer-lasting wavy hair styles. Joyner went on to become a prominent figure in Madame CJ Walker’s industry, though she never profited directly from her invention, the assigned intellectual property of the Walker Company.

Madame Walker on Herself

"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" - Madame Walker
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