Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919), an American businesswoman, was the first self-made Black American millionaire – and the first American woman too of any race according to the “Guinness Book of World Records”. She sold hair care products to black women, most notably the hot comb, which made straightened hair common among black women in the early 1900s.
She did not invent the hot comb. It had been invented in Paris in the 1800s at a time when Egyptian hairstyles were in fashion. Sears was already selling them to white women in America in the 1880s. But it was Walker who sold them to black women as an easy way to straighten their hair (though even she first used it to help hair grow rather than to straighten it).
She was born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana, across the river from Vicksburg, two years after the slaves were freed. Times were hard: yellow fever killed her parents, the Klan burned down her school, by age ten she was working picking cotton, by age 20 her husband was dead and she had a baby girl to take care of (A’Lelia Walker, who later became a figure of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s).
She moved to St Louis where her brother lived and worked as a washerwoman. As little money as she made, she still saved some of it to give her daughter the education she never had.
Then her hair began falling out. She tried all kinds of hair care products to make her hair grow back, but none of them worked. Some of them even made it worse!
In 1904 at the St Louis world’s fair she saw Margaret Washington, the wife of Booker T. Washington. Her hair was so thick and healthy! She wanted hair just like that.
That night she prayed, asking God to stop her hair from falling out. Then she had a dream: she was in Africa and a man was showing her the things she needed to make something that would help her hair to grow back.
That is how she tells it. Some say she had a pharmacist tell her what was in the hair grower of Annie Malone, a forerunner of Walker’s. At the time Walker was selling Malone’s hair care products door to door. She later modelled her company on Malone’s. (Some say Malone was the first black millionaire.)
In any case she moved to Denver soon after her brother died to be near his family. She spent nights working on her hair growing formula until she got it right. It came out in 1905. She called it Wonderful Hair Grower. It proved to be such a hit that other products soon followed and she started hiring saleswomen, training them in the use of her products.
The rest is history: in time she built a factory in Indianapolis and moved to Harlem.
Her name comes from her third husband, newspaperman Charles J. Walker, her husband at the time she went into business.
- black women’s hair: a brief history: 1900-1965
- Booker T Washington
- Other black businesswomen:
- Cynda Williams: Harlem Blues