Hair is Heritage: Remembering the Contributions of Madam C.J. Walker
Author: Markaysha Bryant
On December 23, 1867, Sarah Breedlove, who would later be known as Madam C.J. Walker, was born on the Grand View Plantation in Delta, Louisiana. Her parents, Minerva and Owen Breedlove, were enslaved people who had recently been freed due to the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, making Sarah their first child to be born free. Sarah had five siblings, one sister Louvenia, and four brothers: Alexander, James, Solomon, and Owen Jr. Though Abraham Lincoln had signed the proclamation, it was not an easy transition for African Americans in the south. The south began to pass legislation segregating the African American population from the white population, commonly referred to as Jim Crow Laws. These segregated practices made it difficult for African Americans to advance; thus, Sarah and her family remained at the plantation as sharecroppers to farm the land.
By the age of seven
Sarah became an orphan by both of her parents’ passing, contributing to her relocation to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to stay with her sister Louvenia at age ten. Upon her arrival to Vicksburg, she found work as a laundress. To escape mistreatment from her sisters’ husband Jesse Powell, Sarah married Moses McWilliams, with whom she had her first child Lelia. Unfortunately, Moses McWilliams passed away two years later, leaving Sarah to raise Lelia independently. Determined to have a better lifestyle for her daughter, Lelia, she relocated to St.Louis with her brothers. In St.Louis, she met Charles James Walker, who would soon become her husband, giving her the title of Madam C.J. Walker. Her brothers became established barbers in St. Louis, where they owned their barbershop. At a time of heightened racial tension and segregation, becoming a barber was a means to progress given the circumstances of their environment.
Like many other individuals
Walker suffered from dandruff and hair loss due to a scalp condition. There were not many products available that catered to African American hair textures, which prompted her to create a formula that helped heal said conditions. She eventually released a complete hair care line of products and employed thousands of door-to-door saleswomen; because of her hard work and perseverance, Madam C.J. Walker became the first African American female self-made millionaire. Walker’s legacy continues today; with permission from her great-great-great-granddaughter A’leila Bundles, Sundial Brands purchased Madam C.J. Walker’s Enterprises in 2013.
Walker was both a trailblazer and an entrepreneur
building a brand from the ground up; because of phenomenal innovators like Madam C.J Walker, 4MAS can contribute to the future of the haircare industry.
“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 Walker, National Negro Business League Convention, July 1912 (Journal of Women in Educational Leadership)