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Madam C.J. Walker

WalkerMadam C.J. Walker
by IHS staff

Sarah Breedlove was born in Delta, La., on Dec. 23, 1867, the daughter of Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove. Orphaned at 7, she moved to Vicksburg with her sister, Louvenia, when she was 10. At the age of 14, she married Moses McWilliams. In 1885, they had a daughter named Lelia, who later changed her name to A’Lelia and became a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. McWilliams died in 1887.

Left a widow at 20, Sarah Breedlove McWilliams moved to St. Louis. She made a living as a laundress and furthered her education by studying in public night schools. After the turn of the century, she sold products for Annie Pope Turnbo (later Malone), another African-American woman.  She moved to Denver in 1905 selling Malone’s hair care products.  During the spring of 1906, after her marriage to C.J. Walker, she marketed herself and her products as Madam C.J. Walker. This was done perhaps to dignify her products or to avoid being called by a condescending name like "Aunt Sarah." The “secret formula” in her products included sulfur and a more frequent cleansing of the hair and scalp. After disagreements about the business and perhaps about other subjects, she divorced Walker in 1912. He died in 1926.

By 1908, after time in Denver and time spent traveling to publicize her products, she opened an office in Pittsburgh. There she founded Lelia College, which offered a course in her methods. In 1910, Madam Walker moved to Indianapolis, setting up a laboratory and a beauty school. In September 1911, with the help of Robert Brokenburr, a young attorney, she incorporated her company with herself, Lelia and C.J. Walker listed as the board of directors. At the height of her career, between 1911 and her death in 1919, her annual sales increased. She had several thousand agents around the country to sell her full line of products for growing and beautifying hair. These included Wonderful Hair Grower, Temple Grower, shampoo, Glossine (pressing oil) and Tetter Salve, a remedy for the scalp. Integral to the use of her products was an emphasis on cleanliness, hygiene and personal pride.

The function of the Walker agents throughout the country was not merely to sell Walker products, but to educate customers in hygiene and in the value of good personal appearance. In 1916, the agents were organized into the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Mme. C.J. Walker Agents (later called The Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America). Members paid dues of 25 cents a month entitling their beneficiaries to a $50 death benefit. Local unions were encouraged to engage in philanthropic and educational work and were given prizes for doing so. The benevolent association had regular regional and national conventions, which combined both business and educational purposes. To increase opportunities, Madam Walker established beauty schools in several cities. The beauty treatments taught called for the use of her products.

In addition to A’Lelia, her only child, other family members worked for Madam Walker’s company. A’Lelia was put in charge, first of the operation in Pittsburgh, then of the New York school and parlor. A’Lelia’s adopted daughter, Mae Walker, worked in the company, and the image of her hair was often used as an advertisement for the business. Madam Walker’s sister, Louvenia Powell, worked in the Indianapolis factory. Walker’s nieces, Thirsapen Breedlove and Anjetta Breedlove, had an agency in Los Angeles. Early on, the Walker Company had the support of enterprising and energetic attorneys F.B. Ransom and Robert Brokenburr. The company provided two new ways in which black women could make a living – as beauty culturists and as sales agents. In an age when there were very few work outlets other than domestic service and manual labor, this was a major accomplishment.

Madam Walker devoted her time mainly to travel and speaking on behalf of her company. Very often she arranged to make appearances at black churches. She served as a spokeswoman, not only for her products, but also as the most successful black businesswomen of her day. After being snubbed by Booker T. Washington and with the support of Freedom publisher George Knox, she seized the podium at the National Negro Business League meeting in Chicago in 1912. Speaking before the most influential group of black entrepreneurs within the country, she stated: “I am a woman that came from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted from there to the washtub. Then I was promoted to the cook kitchen, and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations.”

By the end of her life, Walker’s friends and acquaintances included Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Mary Talbert, William Monroe Trotter, Ida B. Wells and Bert Williams. Her association with the National Negro Business League, the National Association of Colored Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the organizing committee of the 1917 Silent Protest Parade, etc. informed some of her political activities.

Walker left day-to-day operation of the business and its finances to Freeman B. Ransom, an attorney who had an early association with the company from the time of its relocation to Indianapolis. Born July 13, 1882 in Grenada, Miss., Ransom studied theology at Walden University in Nashville, Tenn., and law at Columbia University. After coming to Indianapolis, he boarded at Madam Walker’s house and gave her legal help. He became general manager and attorney of the company and remained until his death in 1947. [An Indianapolis neighborhood (Ransom Place) where he and his wife, Nettie, bought a house and lived with their children, was named in his honor 50 years after his death.] During her lifetime, Madam Walker kept a firm hand on company operations, not only by contacts made during her travels, but also by a series of letters to Ransom from wherever she happened to be.

Madam Walker was repeatedly referred to as a millionaire during the last few years of her life, however, in a New York Times magazine article and later in a letter to F. B. Ransom dated March 4, 1918, she specifically denied this. Certainly, by the end of her life, with total ownership of the company and with her holdings in real estate, her wealth could be measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As her wealth grew, Madam Walker gave increasing amounts of money to African-American charities. In Indianapolis, Flanner House, Alpha Home, the Senate Avenue YMCA and Bethel AME Church were among her beneficiaries. Farther afield, she made donations to Tuskegee Institute, Mary McLeod Bethune’s Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls in Florida (the school later merged with Cookman Institute to become Bethune-Cookman College), Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina, Haines Institute in Georgia, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Both Walker and her daughter, A’Lelia enjoyed many genres of music including opera, classical, ragtime and blues. A major patron of the arts, Madam Walker supported African-American musicians, actors and artists. 

Though most of her activities on behalf of blacks were aimed toward education and the building of personal and racial pride, Walker on occasion registered protest. In 1915, she began a lawsuit to protest discrimination at a theater in Indianapolis. Madam Walker encouraged her agents to develop their political muscle and advocate for civil and human rights. In 1917, she urged the group to decry lynchings in the South. During World War I, she was a member of a delegation to Washington to protest the War Department’s segregationist policies to President Woodrow Wilson. In late 1918 and early 1919, she considered going to the Versailles Conference as an alternate delegate of the National Equal Rights League to ask for a provision in the treaty concerning the rights of Americans of African descent. Like other members of the delegation, she was unable to obtain a passport. Early in 1919, she was briefly involved with Adam Clayton Powell Sr., in the formation of the International League of the Darker Peoples.

About 1916, Madam Walker moved to New York to a house in Harlem. After an unsuccessful attempt to buy an estate on Long Island, she purchased a four-and-a-half-acre estate at Irvington-on-Hudson. Engaging a black architect, Vertner W. Tandy, she built a mansion with a formal Italian garden and swimming pool. Construction of this mansion was intended to be an example of what someone of her race and sex could accomplish. At the suggestion of tenor Enrico Caruso, the estate was later called Villa Lewaro, an acronym based on the name of her daughter, A’Lelia Walker Robinson. Among its accoutrements were a Weber piano covered with gold leaf, a Victrola to match and an Estey pipe organ. The project strained her resources to the limit. There was a mortgage on the house, and some of the furnishings, including the piano and pipe organ, were not paid for in full for several years.

Madam Walker had lived a strenuous life, both in her early days of hard physical labor and in her later years of constant travel and public speaking. The strain began to tell on her, especially in the form of high blood pressure and kidney failure. She was persuaded to take periods of rest at Hot Springs, Ark., and at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. In April 1919, while in St. Louis on a trip, she became very ill. Taken home to Villa Lewaro, she did not recover. She died on May 25, 1919, at the age of 51.

Sources:

M 0399 Madam C.J. Walker Papers Collection Guide, Indiana Historical Society.

Bundles, A'Lelia Perry, "Madam C.J. Walker: Cosmetics Tycoon" Ms Magazine, July 1983, pp. 91-94.

Bundles, A'Lelia Perry, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker. New York: Scribner, 2001.

Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner's, 1964.

Indiana Biography Series, Indiana State Library, v. 2, p. 276; v. 3, p. 315.

Koehn, Nancy F. Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur, Leader, and Philanthropist. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Pub., 2007.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Vingtage Books, 1982.

McKay, Claude. Harlem: Negro Metropolis. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1940.

Ottley, Roi. New World A-Coming. New York: Arno Press, 1968.

Pleiss, Kathy. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998.

Price, Nelson. Indiana Legends: Famous Hoosiers from Johnny Appleseed to David Letterman. Carmel, IN: Guild Press of Indiana, 1997.

Reynolds, Violet Cornelia Davis. The Story of a Remarkable Woman. Indianapolis: Universal Printing Co., 1973.

Rooks, Noliwe M. Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Schoener, Allon, ed. Harlem on my Mind: Cultural Capitol of Black America, 1900-1968. New York: Random House, 1969.

Additional Sources:

Official website of Madam Walker's original hair care company: www.madamewalker.net

Student-oriented website created by Madam Walker's biographer and authorized by Walker family: http://www.madamcjwalker.com

Website for the Madam Walker Family Archives: www.madamwalkerfamilyarchives.wordpress.com

Website for the Madam Walker Theatre Center: www.walkertheatre.com

Website for Villa Lewaro: www.madamwalkerestate.com