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Madam C.J. Walker's legacy of empowering black women lives on 100 years after her death

Netflix is set to premiere a limited series on her remarkable life, starring Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and produced by LeBron James.
Photograph of Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker circa 1912.Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of A'Lelia Bundles

Madam C.J. Walker was a master brand builder long before it was in vogue. She is credited with being the nation’s first black self-made female millionaire, and her legacy has outlasted those who preceded her.

As the centennial of her death on May 25 approaches, some could argue that that legacy is more robust than ever. Sundial Brands, the parent company of personal care company SheaMoisture, sells Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture products in Sephora. Soon, SheaMoisture founder and Essence magazine owner Richelieu Dennis is reportedly set to turn Walker’s mansion into an incubator for black female entrepreneurs. Walker’s Legacy, an advocacy organization for multicultural businesswomen, bears her name.

And Netflix is set to premiere a limited series on her remarkable life, starring Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and produced by LeBron James, based on her 2001 biography “On Her Own Ground," written by her great-great-granddaughter, A'Lelia Bundles.

Image: A'Lelia Bundles
A'Lelia BundlesQue Duong

That her legacy lives on is no accident.

“I think that she was very conscious of what she was doing in creating a legacy that she really was a pioneer in the hair care industry, which of course, is now a multibillion-dollar industry,” Bundles told NBCBLK. “But, in the process, it wasn't just about building a business, it was about empowering women. And that legacy of empowering women, educating women, helping them to become economically independent is something that became legend in the black community.”

“And legend for very substantial reasons because generations of people benefited from the independent income that they were able to make, and the investments they were able to make, and the fact that they could educate their children, so people carried that pride in the story of Madam Walker through the generations.”

Walker was born Sarah Breedlove, the fifth child and first to be designated free to the formerly enslaved Owen and Minerva Breedlove, on a plantation near Delta, Louisiana, on Dec. 23, 1867. Orphaned at 7, she went to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to live with her sister. By 14, she was married. At 17, she gave birth to her only child, commonly known as A’Lelia Walker, before becoming a widow at 20. When she joined her four brothers, who worked as barbers, in St. Louis, she was a poor, single mother with little formal education working as a washerwoman. Interaction with strong women from the St. Paul A.M.E. Church and the National Association of Colored Women in St. Louis inspired her to want more.

She moved to Denver in 1905, where she briefly worked as a sales agent for Annie Turnbo Malone, a successful St. Louis-based hair care pioneer, and married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper ad salesman. The next year, she launched Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company with her first product, Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing salve that sparked hair growth. The formula, she claimed, came to her in a dream and successfully reversed her own hair loss. The name was so similar to Malone’s star product, Wonderful Hair Grower, that she took out an ad in a Colorado newspaper with the warning “beware of imitations.”

Can for Wonderful Hair Grower
Madam C.J. WalkerCollection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture/ Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.

Walker was undeterred and began building her empire with assistance from her husband, who helped her place ads in black newspapers, and her college-educated daughter, who was her first key executive. Walker herself hit the road for over a year and a half promoting herself as she sold her products. Her hard work paid off and, by 1910, she had built her own factory in Indianapolis, along with a hair and manicure salon. She also built a training school there to train women in the Walker method to ensure optimum hair growth with her products. As her fortune bloomed, Walker shared it through generous donations to various causes such as the building fund for the Indianapolis “colored” YMCA as well as the NAACP and the national fight against lynching.

Walker was not silent about her success either. As a black woman from the South who had risen from poverty, she knew what her story meant to other black women and she demanded that it be told. When Booker T. Washington rejected several requests for her to speak during the National Negro Business League convention in Chicago in 1912, Walker stopped asking for permission. During a morning session with the National Bankers Association on the third and final day of the convention, she rose from the audience and spoke just before Washington called another banker.

“Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face,” she said to Washington and the many other men in the room. “I feel that I am in a business that is a credit to the womanhood of our race.” Then Walker detailed her wealth and all that she had done to get here.

“I have built my own factory on my own ground,” she said. The next year, Washington himself welcomed her as an official speaker to the convention in Philadelphia.

In 1913, Walker owned three automobiles — a Ford Model T, a Waverley electric car and a seven-passenger Cole Touring Car — when women barely made up 10 percent of the nation’s licensed drivers. She gathered more than 200 black women in Philadelphia in 1917 for the Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention a year before Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, was born. She shipped her Cole overseas for sales trips throughout Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica. As many as 20,000 women sold her products.

Walker’s pride and confidence as a successful businesswoman moved Walker’s Legacy founder Natalie Madeira Cofield to name the advocacy group after the legendary entrepreneur. The organization is set to host its first national conference in Washington this fall and celebrates 10 years in January 2020. For almost a decade, Walker’s Legacy has shared resources with female entrepreneurs of color, offering conversations online and in person, as well as advocating for economic policies that support them in Walker’s name. As a young entrepreneur, Cofield had trouble finding a female mentor, so she turned to biographies and did a deep dive into Walker’s life.

Image: Natalie Madeira Cofield
Natalie Madeira CofieldCourtesy of Walker's Legacy

“As I proceeded to read more about her as an entrepreneur, I learned so much about her contributions to business and to community than what I had been privy through any of my education,” Cofield, a Howard alumnae, said. “At the time, I didn't feel that there was anything really happening as it related to preserving her legacy as an entrepreneurial titan.”

“Titan” is exactly how Walker viewed herself, and she proved that when she built her elaborate mansion, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington, New York, 20 miles north of midtown Manhattan. It was built in 1916-18 for a whopping $250,000 by a team led by Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity co-founder Vertner Woodson Tandy, New York state’s first registered black architect. The 20,000-square-foot mansion with 34 rooms, three terraces and a swimming pool was more than just a home. It was a statement.

Walker reportedly built Villa Lewaro as “a Negro institution that only Negro money bought” to “convince members of [my] race of the wealth of business possibilities within the race to point to young Negroes what a lone woman accomplished and to inspire them to do big things.”

Today it serves as inspiration for the historic preservation of black sites through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which the National Trust for Historic Preservation and its partners created in 2017 with $25 million to help fund restorations of important structures.

Image: Brent Leggs
Brent LeggsHarrt Photography

“Villa Lewaro stands as an elegant and beautifully restored historic space that brings life to Madam Walker’s remarkable career,” Brent Leggs, who serves as director of the program, said.

“In many ways, it stands as a living testimony to the power and spirit of American entrepreneurship. It’s important that we preserve that physical evidence of our past, not only to ensure Madam C.J. Walker’s life and contributions and business and activism are preserved and told, but it's also to reimagine how her home can be reused for increased social impact and to empower other business pioneers, women and cultural influencers that want to follow in her footsteps.”

That “reuse” of this space is what Dennis, the SheaMoisture founder, reportedly hopes to achieve through the New Voices Fund, a $100 million initiative to support female entrepreneurs of color. The fund was created when the global conglomerate Unilever acquired SheaMoisture's parent company, Sundial Brands, in 2017. Dennis completed his purchased of Villa Lewaro at the end of 2018, and reportedly plans to establish an incubator for female entrepreneurs and public tours.

Over a century later, Walker’s remarkable journey from an impoverished childhood in the Deep South to becoming one of the nation’s richest businesswomen by the time of her death in 1919 at 51 continues to inspire.

“I am not satisfied in making money for myself,” she once said. “I endeavor to provide employment to hundreds of women of my race.”

She did more than provide jobs; she planted the seeds of possibility. And that is timeless.

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