Self Made: the real story of Madam CJ Walker, America’s first black female millionaire
When Self Made – a new Netflix series starring Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer – premieres on 20 March, millions of people around the world will likely hear Madam CJ Walker’s name for the first time. We caught up with Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, to discover the real story behind the woman dubbed the wealthiest self-made woman in America
“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.”
– Madam CJ Walker (July 1912)
The life of Sarah Breedlove (1867–1919) – who later became known as Madam CJ Walker – is a true ‘rags-to-riches’ story. She was the first person in her family to be born after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, on the Louisiana plantation where her parents and older siblings were previously enslaved. By the time she died, at the age of 51, she was living in a mansion a few miles away from American business magnate John D Rockefeller, with a hair product company that provided income for thousands of African-American women.
The seed for her business success was sown during the 1890s, when Breedlove began experiencing hair loss as a result of a common scalp ailment. Desperate for a cure, she began testing a number of homemade hair remedies and store-bought treatments, ultimately settling on a product of her own creation. After seeing its results first-hand, Breedlove changed her name to Madam CJ Walker and began marketing her hair treatment as ‘Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower’. It was a decision that set her on course to become a pioneer of the modern black hair-care and cosmetics industry – and a millionaire by default. At the time of her death, her estate is estimated to have exceeded $1m.
To coincide with the release of a new Netflix series charting her life and achievements, our digital editorial assistant Rachel Dinning sat down with journalist and author A’Lelia Bundles – who is also Walker’s great-great-granddaughter – to discover more about the inspiring self-made businesswoman and the challenges she faced…
Rachel Dinning: Madam CJ Walker overcame astonishing odds to achieve incredible success. What was it that made her so successful?
A’Lelia Bundles: There are people like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs who have created new industries and can be considered geniuses. I think Madam Walker did have some genius – some marketing genius that made her products stand out from the crowd.
Some of it was personal drive, but some of it was also timing. Madam Walker grew up in Louisiana during the 1870s, at a time when there was a great deal of racial violence against African-Americans and their communities. After she was widowed, at 20, she moved to St Louis [in Missouri] with her young daughter. She was lucky because her brothers had moved there earlier; they were barbers, which meant they had a bit more status than the average labourer.
Their barber shop was very near a church, St Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, which had a reputation for educating African-Americans to have a very international outlook on things. I really think that it was the women of this church – educated, middle-class women – who gave Sarah Breedlove this vision of herself as something other than an illiterate washer woman.
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RD: Would you describe Madam Walker as truly ‘self-made’?
AB: People make a lot of the term ‘self-made’. In the case of Madam Walker, the term works to some degree; she did make that money on her own. But she would say that she received great lessons from a number of women – both in the church and a group called the National Association of Coloured Women. Thewomen in the NACW were educated, they were suffragettes, and they were organising around political and social issues. Madam Walker learned from their example.
RD: Other products for black hair were on the market at the time. What made Walker’s hair products different?
AB: My research actually shows that the product Madam Walker made had been around for centuries – it wasn’t new. During this period, most Americans didn't have indoor plumbing and hygiene was very different. People didn’t wash their hair as much [as they do today] and so they had horrible dandruff and scalp infections. Madam Walker was one of these women – and she actually began to lose her hair at one point.
The remedy involved washing hair more often and applying an appointment containing sulphur. This was actually a centuries-old remedy for skin and scalp infections, so while Madam Walker liked to suggest that the recipe came to her from a dream – she’d say: “I had a dream, and in the dream a big African man came to me with this formula” – the truth is that her basic formula was in medical texts from centuries ago. The key was sulphur, which had long been considered a medicinal ingredient.
There were people making similar products, but the difference with Madam Walker is that she was a master marketer. She also knew the benefits of surrounding herself with competent people and empowering them to do well. Along with her contemporaries Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, she was creating an industry at a time when there wasn't a distribution system for international sales for cosmetics and haircare products.
RD: Madam Walker wasn’t just an astute businesswoman; she was also a passionate activist and philanthropist. Can you tell us a bit more about these activities and how she fought for equality?
AB: Because there were so few African-Americans with the kind of income Madam Walker had, she was often called upon to give her opinion. She was in black newspapers every week at one point! She had a platform for her haircare products, but she used that platform for her political activism. You might call her an ‘influencer’ in today’s terms.
All of her success ultimately translated into her giving money to causes that she believed in. In 1911, for example, she gave a large gift of $1,000 to a black YMCA building in Indianapolis. This donation attracted press attention; people wanted to know who this ‘washer-woman turned businesswoman turned philanthropist’ was. When she later moved to New York, she also became very involved with the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] and its anti-lynching movement.
RD: At a time when jobs for women were fairly limited, what was the response to Madam Walker’s success? Did she face any controversies?
AB: Madam Walker was always focused on healthy hair growth, but there were people who saw what she was doing and thought it was about black women straightening their hair and trying to imitate European standards of beauty. Madam Walker was fully aware that this was a controversy, and once told a reporter: “Let me correct the erroneous impression that I straighten hair. I grow hair.”
She did market the hot comb, which straightens hair. She didn’t invent it, although people say she did. People of African descent have so many different textures of hair – from very kinky to very straight. If people wanted more versatility in their hair, sometimes they wanted to straighten it.
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RD: Did Madam Walker face any discrimination or racism?
AB: Madam Walker was certainly up against the racism of the time. When she was building her mansion in Irvington, New York, there was some backlash from locals who didn’t want a black neighbour in their wealthy community. When she travelled around the United States, there were hotels where black people were not allowed to stay, so she would to have to make personal arrangements with friends and acquaintances. On trains as well, she would be forced to sit in Jim Crow [segregated] accommodation (although as she became more successful, some of the black Pullman porters would find ways to make her more comfortable).
There was also one incident in particular that is really illustrative of the kind of discrimination she faced. Madam Walker was very ahead of her time; she had an electric car in 1912 and she loved going to the movies. One afternoon, in Indianapolis, she decided to go to the cinema. The price on the sign said that tickets cost 10 cents, but when she came up to the booth, the young white ticket-taker told her that the price was 20 cents. “But the sign says 10 cents?” she said. “It’s 20 for coloured people,” the ticket-taker replied. Madam Walker went back to her office and had her attorney sue the theatre. The poetic justice is that now, in Indianapolis, there is the Walker Legacy Centre, built in 1927, which has a beautiful theatre designed in her vision.
RD: When Self Made – the Netflix series starring Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer – premieres, millions of people around the world will likely hear Madam Walker’s name for the first time. How historically accurate is the series?
AB: Self-Made is not a documentary. In order to appeal to the audience, writers and producers have to use creative licence to add tension and drama to the story. The series hinges on Madam Walker’s conflict with her competitor, and this is very exaggerated from what actually happened in real life. There are also characters included that didn't actually exist, but they are there to develop certain themes. People should not take this series as fact; they should take it as entertainment.
Nonetheless, Octavia Spencer does an excellent job of portraying Madam Walker’s courage and tenacity. She shows just how difficult it was then for a woman to start a business and make it a success. She really gets it right.
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The wigs, too, are incredible – and this is really important. Hair is a key part of Madam Walker’s life, but it is also part of a journey that all women of African descent experience. This is done extremely well in the series. The costumes and sets are also wonderful – you really do get a feeling that you're in that time period.
It seems that Madam Walker is having a moment right now – and it’s really very exciting. I hope that the Netflix series will make more people aware of her and want to discover the facts about her life.
A'Lelia Bundles is an American journalist and author. Her books include Self Made – which wasoriginally published in 2001 as On Her Own Ground – the first full-scale, definitive biography of Madam CJ Walker. You can find her website here
Rachel Dinning is the digital editorial assistant at HistoryExtra
For more information about Madam CJ Walker, please visit madamcjwalker.com