While America has produced hundreds of millionaires, few ex-washerwomen are numbered among their ranks. One of the first American women of any race or rank to become a millionaire through her own efforts was Sarah Breedlove Walker.
Orphaned in her native Louisiana at six, married to one C.J. Walker at fourteen and widowed at twenty, Madame C.J. Walker invented a new method of straighteninging hair. Before her time, Negro women who wanted to de-kink their hair had to place it on a flat surface and press it with a flat iron. In 1905 Madame Walker invented her hair softener and a special straightening comb. For millions of women these inventions were a godsend. Overnight she found herself in business, with assistants, agents, schools, and eventually, a manufacturing company. Before her death in 1919 Madame Walker could count over 2,000 agents selling an ever-expanding line of Walker products and demonstrating the “Walker System” of treating hair.
A former laundress, Madame Walker proved herself a competent businesswoman. She organized her agents into clubs, trained operatives for her system, allocated franchises and provided the cosmetics and equipment required. Her payroll was over $200,000 annually. She donated large sums to charity and to educational institutions. She even founded an academy for girls in West Africa and bequeathed $100,000 to it.
Madame Walker constantly made headlines, both with her business and her social activities. In New York at Irvington-on-the-Hudson, she built Villa Lewaro, a $250,000 mansion. She furnished it with a gold-plated piano, a $60,000 pipe organ, Hepplewhite furniture, Persian rugs and many huge oil paintings. A “who’s who” of Negro America marched through her doors. Through it all, Madame Walker remained a pleasant, kindly person genuinely interested in those less fortunate than herself.
Madame Walker’s ingenuity and ability laid the foundation of the cosmetics industry among Negros and spurred the interest in beauty among colored women.
Be sure to read about how other female and African-American inventors helped shape our history and make our world what it is today.
Information Sources: Dictionary of American Biography, XIX, 1936; Roi Ottley, New World A-Coming, New York, 1948, pp. 172-173.
- Black History Month: The Women Who Made a Difference (huffingtonpost.com)
- America’s First Black Newspaper (showedupandshowedout.wordpress.com)