Curl Creams, Protests, & War: The Untold Legacy Of Madam C.J. Walker
Beauty pioneer Madam C.J. Walker is best known as America’s first female millionaire. But she was also a radical activist who rallied for change far beyond the shampoo bowl.
In the summer of 1917, Madam C.J. Walker, America's first female self-made millionaire, had something to say to President Woodrow Wilson.
A white mob had just murdered more than a dozen Black people in East St. Louis, Illinois. The reaction, according to Walker's great-great-granddaughter and biographer A'Lelia Bundles, was on par with the outcry after the murders of Travyon Martin and Michael Brown. "It was Black Lives Matter 1.0," Bundles says. "It energized the community."
As riots ensued across the country, Walker took part in the Silent Protest Parade down New York City's Fifth Avenue. Organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which Walker served on the executive committee of, the entirely silent parade drew more than 8,000 people.
Four days later, Walker and other Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to present President Wilson with a petition advocating federal legislation against lynching, which was not yet a federal crime. It was canceled at the last minute. They were told he had "another appointment," says Bundles. Walker and the others left their petition, which also highlighted the African Americans who were then serving in World War I, on President Wilson's desk.
Madam C.J. Walker, whose story is now being told in a new Netflix miniseries starring Octavia Spencer, is most widely known for being the first Black female millionaire — and the first woman of any race to become a self-made millionaire — thanks to her eponymous hair-care company. But she also believed strongly in using her immense wealth and influence to make a difference in the world, contributing to anti-lynching initiatives, and rallying for better treatment of Black soldiers in WWI and economic independence for Black women.
To understand Walker's conviction and compassion, you have to go back to her early life, which was a study in resilience. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on the same Delta, Louisiana plantation where her parents had once been enslaved before the end of the Civil War, Walker was orphaned by the age of seven. She survived by working in cotton fields, was married at 14, and then widowed by 20 with a two-year-old daughter. She then moved to St. Louis, Missouri to be near her brothers, and began working as a laundress for as little as $1.50 a day.
During the 1890s, Walker started experiencing a scalp ailment that caused her to lose most of her hair. She experimented with an array of store-bought products, but found nothing that really helped. While experimenting with different ingredients and formulas herself, she landed on a concoction that worked. She claimed the formula had been revealed to her in a dream.
By 1905, she had moved to Denver with her husband Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper salesman, and changed her name to something catchier: Madam C.J. Walker. She began selling Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning formula that healed scalp infections to promote hair growth.
She traveled for a year throughout the U.S., going door to door demonstrating her product in churches and homes. Word caught on and business boomed. Walker moved sales to her home, then other home-based salons, and then eventually controlled a robust mail-order business with customers throughout the U.S., the Caribbean, and Central America, according to Bundles. Walker advertised extensively in Black newspapers, employing the kind of testimonial endorsements and “before-and-after” photographs that are still seen on 21st century platforms like Instagram today.
From the beginning, giving back to her community was engrained in Walker's business. In 1908, she temporarily moved her base to Pittsburgh, where she opened Lelia College to train Walker “hair culturists," all of whom were Black women. "The hair-care products became a means to an end to empower women," Bundles says. "This was before women had the right to vote. She knew that there were women who either were widows or had been left who had to support themselves. Without an income, there was no way for them to thrive, so she wanted to train them." Walker paved the way for other similar initiatives in the future, like Shea Moisture 's $100 million fund for Black female entrepreneurs.
By early 1910, Walker settled in Indianapolis, where she built a hair and manicure salon, a factory, and another training school for women. Months later, she made headlines in the Black press after she contributed $1,000 to the building fund of the “colored” YMCA in Indianapolis. That's the equivalent to more than $26,000 now.
As her empire continued to grow, Walker consistently gave back. She underwrote several scholarships at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including Tuskegee Institute, Bundles says, and supported the careers of Black artists and musicians. During World War I, Walker traveled across the country advocating for the rights of African American soldiers who were serving in the war and still being subjected to violent discrimination.
For her employees, she organized her very own Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention in Philadelphia in 1917, which is considered to be one of the first national meetings of businesswomen in the country, and highlighted not only sales figures, but her individual sales agents' philanthropic and educational efforts.
"Madam Walker pulled together more than 200 women who came together to talk about business and making money and investments," Bundles says. "At that convention she said, 'We care not just about ourselves, but others.' She gave prizes not just to the women who sold the most products, but the women who gave the most to charities."
Beyond offering economic independence for many of her female agents, Walker was offering something else powerful: confidence. "There was no one saying Black is beautiful, but she was giving women manicures," Bundles says. "In reality, how you feel on the inside and outside reinforce each other, so this idea that not having to cover up your hair or be ashamed of the way you look was radical and a powerful thing."
Walker and her company not only opened doors for the kinds of social and economic changes that would alter women's position in American society forever, but she also paved the way for the kind of inclusive makeup revolution we're seeing right now. According to Bundles, Walker would be over the moon about Fenty Beauty.
"Right before she died, [Walker] introduced some skin-care products," Bundles says. "A cold cream with witch hazel and a couple of shades of powder and foundation. It wasn't as many as the multiple shades that Rihanna thankfully has now, but she knew she needed to have something to address the cosmetic needs of Black women. Her company existed because of Black women."
She also would have loved the democratization of the beauty industry, with Instagram allowing Black women not only a platform to talk about makeup and their current options, but also opportunities to start their own hair and makeup businesses, like entrepreneur Cashmere Nicole of Beauty Bakerie.
"She would have been the queen of social media," Bundles says. "Her very first ad was in 1906, and it had a photograph of herself. In 1910, she had a three-picture triptych of a before-and-after. If she was traveling by train through a town too small to stop in, she would throw off little packets of fliers for local agents, with pictures and messages. That was her Instagram and Twitter."
But what's most astounding about Walker's legacy — what made her a true visionary ahead of her time — is how she used her beauty empire to influence political change. That's something just a few brands like The Lipstick Lobby, Lipslut, and Beautycounter are starting to do right now amidst the Trump administration. But those companies are actually in the minority, as many brands still find it too risky to take a political stance in this climate. With that in mind, think of how radical it was that a Black female founder of a beauty brand was going to the White House more than 100 years ago. Asked whether Walker and her brand would be just as political today, with Trump as president, Bundles laughs.
"Oh yes," she says. "Yes. Yes. Yes. Madam Walker would definitely be speaking out. She was not afraid to go to the White House then, and she wouldn't be afraid to go now."
In the final years before her death in 1919, her political activism never faltered. In December 1918, Walker joined 250 activists in Washington, D.C. for the National Race Congress for World Democracy. That same year, the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC) honored Walker for making the largest individual contribution to help preserve Frederick Douglass' home in Anacostia. Walker pledged $5,000 (the equivalent of about $72,000 now) to the NAACP's anti-lynching fund, which was the largest gift from an individual the NAACP had ever received.
"She was not afraid to go to the White House then, and she wouldn't be afraid to go now."
What Bundles hopes is that this same spirit of conviction and philanthropy shines through the Netflix miniseries, which is based on Bundles' biography of Walker; Bundles is serving as a consultant on the series.
"What I really want to make sure of is that Madam Walker is seen as a multi-dimensional person," Bundles says. "People might know a little bit about her, and mainly about her hair company and her as a businesswoman. But I'm eager for people to see her as truly a groundbreaking figure, not only in beauty, but in equality and fighting to empower women and Black people across the world."