February is Black History Month in the United States, and to celebrate our nation’s diversity, I have been posting short biographies of African-Americans. Today is the last day of the month and I didn’t want it to go by without talking about the life and legacy of Madam CJ Walker. Surprisingly, she is not so well known this day in age, but her accomplishments during the time period in which they occurred should garner her much respect. She is widely considered to be the first African-American female millionaire and was well known for her philanthropy.
Businesswoman and philanthropist, born in Delta, Louisiana and orphaned at the age of six, she was raised by an elder sister and married to ‘Mr. McWilliams’ at age 14 in Vicksburg.
Widowed at age 20 with a daughter, A’Lelia Walker, she moved to St Louis and attended public night schools and worked days as a washerwoman.
In 1905 she invented a method for straightening African-Americans’ ‘kinky’ hair: her method involved her own formula for a pomade, much brushing, and the use of heated combs.
Encouraged by her success, she moved to Denver, CO where she married Charles J Walker. She promoted her method and products by travelling about the country giving lecture-demonstrations. Her business became so successful that she opened an office in Pittsburgh (1908), which she left in the charge of her daughter.
Walker organized agents to sell her hair treatment door-to-door and in 1910 transferred her business—by then the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Co.—to Indianapolis, Indiana. Her company at its peak employed some 3,000 people, many of them “Walker agents”—saleswomen dressed in long black skirts and white blouses who became familiar figures in the black communities of the United States and the Caribbean who promoted Madame Walker’s philosophy of ‘cleanliness and loveliness’ as aids to advancing the status of African-Americans.
An innovator, she organized clubs and conventions for her representatives which recognized not only successful sales, but also philanthropic and educational efforts among African-Americans.
Walker was president and sole proprietor of her company, and she soon became one of the best-known figures in America. Through the example of entertainer Josephine Baker, the Walker System coiffure became popular in Europe as well.
Walker augmented her fortune with shrewd real estate investments. Generous with her money, she included in her extensive philanthropies educational scholarships, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, homes for the aged, and the National Conference on Lynching.
She bequeathed her estate to various charitable and educational institutions and to her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, who was later known for supporting an intellectual salon—known as the Dark Tower—that helped to stimulate the cultural Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
She is generally acknowledged to be the first black female millionaire in the United States.