WHEN aspiring entrepreneurs asked Madam C.J. Walker how she turned a $1.50 investment into a cosmetics empire worth millions, she attributed her success to tenacity, perseverance, faith in herself and in God, quality products and "honest business dealings."
"There is no royal flower-strewn path to success," she said. "And if there is, I have not found it, for if I have accomplished anything in life, it is because I have been willing to work hard."
Born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, La., in 1867, this daughter of former slaves was a laundress until 1905, when she formulated hair and scalp preparations for black women. When she died at age 51, she had become the first female African-American millionaire. Blessed with uncanny business acumen and mother wit, she transformed herself from an unskilled laborer to a celebrated entrepreneur, philanthropist and social activist who battled racism and sexism.
As her business grew, Walker became increasingly conscious of her power and her obligation to, as she often said, "help my race." Of her contributions to black preparatory schools and colleges, orphanages and retirement homes, as well as to social and cultural organizations and institutions, she said:
"My object in life is not simply to make money for myself or to spend it on myself in dressing or running around in an automobile, but I love to use a part of what I make in trying to help others."
After moving to Harlem in 1916, she became increasingly involved in the NAACP's anti-lynching movement, contributing $5,000 to the organization's political and educational fund to end mob violence.
In July 1917, when three dozen blacks were murdered by whites during a riot in East St. Louis, Ill., Walker joined other Harlem leaders in the Negro Silent Protest Parade. The massive anti-lynching demonstration drew some 10,000 black New Yorkers who marched somberly and speechlessly down Fifth Avenue to the cadence of muffled drums, with banners and posters held high, to protest Jim Crow laws and mob violence.
A few days later, Walker - along with James Weldon Johnson, Abyssinian Baptist Church minster Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Harlem real estate agent John E. Nail and New York Age publisher Fred Moore - boarded a train to Washington to meet President Woodrow Wilson. Their mission was to present a petition favoring legislation to make lynching a federal crime.
Although they knew that Wilson was a Southern-born segregationist, they hoped he would listen to what they had to say.
When Wilson declined to meet them, they headed to Capitol Hill, where they lobbied senators and representatives for an anti-lynching bill and a congressional investigation [See Walker, 6h] into the East St. Louis riot.
It's not surprising that Walker was undeterred by Wilson's snub. Throughout her life, she drew strength from adversity. "I got my start by giving myself a start," she said of her troubled childhood.
Orphaned at age 7 when her parents were struck down by illness, Sarah Breedlove and her older sister, Louvenia, survived by working in the cotton fields around Delta and Vicksburg, Miss. Sarah was just 14 years old when she married Moses McWilliams, who died six years later, leaving her with a 2-year-old daughter.
Sarah Breedlove McWilliams, 20, moved upriver to St. Louis, where she earned a reputation as a first-class laundress. But she wanted more than a washerwoman's wage for herself and her daughter, Lelia (later known as A'Lelia Walker).
"As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds," Walker recalled, "I said to myself, 'What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff?' This set me to thinking, but with all my thinking I couldn't see how a poor washerwoman was going to better my condition."
Worn as her own clothes must have been, she still prided herself on her appearance - on the starch in her dresses and the perfectly ironed collars and cuffs. But her hair was another matter. It was thin, unhealthy, patchy and frayed. Like many women of the time, she suffered from alopecia, a diet- and hygiene-related scalp ailment characterized by excessive, infectious dandruff that made her nearly bald. She tried homemade remedies and store-bought products, including the hair pomades of a black St. Louis businesswoman, Annie Malone, who had founded her own company in 1900.
Apparently finding some benefit from Malone's products, McWilliams moved to Denver in 1905 to sell Malone's "Wonderful Hair Grower." But by the spring of 1906, after she married Charles Joseph Walker - an ambitious, if sometimes luckless, promoter - the couple explored ways to combine her marketing ability and his knack for creating newspaper advertising. In the fashion of many women proprietors of her era, she adopted the title "Madam" and attached it to her husband's name. She stopped selling Malone's product and mixed her own, which she said had been revealed to her in a dream.
"God answered my prayer, for one night I had a dream, and in that dream a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair," she told a reporter. "I put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out."
To promote her own products, the new Madam C.J. Walker traveled for a year and a half through the South and Southwest, demonstrating her hair products.
In 1908, she temporarily moved her base to Pittsburgh and opened Lelia College - which she named for her daughter - to train Walker hair "culturists." By early 1910, she had settled in Indianapolis and built a factory and a hair and manicure salon and another training school. In 1912, she divorced Charles Joseph Walker, business differences having spilled over into the couple's personal life.
Much of Walker's ascendancy as a businesswoman came from her ability to discern the kinds of hair products sought by most black women. It was an age when the morals of even the most respectable black woman were questioned and sullied by racist stereotypes. As a result, middle-class black women in particular placed tremendous pressure on themselves to conform to Victorian behavior and dress and the Euro-American standards of beauty that prized white skin and long, straight hair. This created a caste system within the black community that favored mulatto women.
Because Walker's Negroid facial features and hair were typical of the majority of African-American women, she understood the wishes of her sisters to be attractive. While Walker and her hair culturists popularized the use of the metal straightening comb, she never came to terms with its role in fostering the white beauty standard among blacks. Walker insisted that her hair-care system was not intended as a "hair straightener" but rather as a grooming method to heal and condition the scalp to promote hair growth.
In 1912, Walker, 44, arrived in Chicago for her first National Negro Business League convention. She was confident that the mostly male membership would welcome her. But first she had to persuade Booker T. Washington, the group's founder and America's most influential black leader, to carve out a slot for her on his already overbooked program.
Walker was among those who admired Washington's personal journey from slave to educator to presidential adviser. Although by 1912 his gradual, accommodationist approach to civil rights was being challenged within the black community by a new generation of more progressive activists, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Washington retained his pre-eminent position.
Walker, who had met Washington at least twice before, suspected he might be reluctant to grant her a forum. Two years earlier, when she had written to him seeking advice and investment capital, he had brushed her off with replies that were noncommittal at best, condescending at worst. When she wrote again in late 1911 seeking an invitation to his annual Negro Conference at Tuskegee Institute - the Alabama school he founded in 1881 - he discouraged her from attending because of his skepticism of female entrepreneurs.
Undaunted and presumably uninvited, Walker arrived on Tuskegee's campus in January 1912. Determined to grab Washington's attention, she personally delivered to his home a letter of reference from the newly installed secretary of Indianapolis' "colored" Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and made another personal plea to address the group. Her persistence was rewarded, not with an audience during the regular sessions of the conference but with 10 minutes at the evening chapel.
Anticipating another challenge from Washington, Walker began a quiet, behind-the-scenes campaign for a place on the speakers' rostrum as soon as she registered in Chicago.
Walker and the 2,000 delegates and guests greeted Washington's annual speech with a foot-stomping standing ovation that reverberated from the altar of the Institutional Church to its rafters.
"The men and women of our race of this generation hold in their hands the future of the generations that are to follow," she heard him say. "This is in an especial sense true of the Negro businessman and woman. If we do not do our duty now in laying the proper foundation for economic and commercial growth, our children and our children's children will suffer because of our inactivity or shortness of vision."
Awaiting a reply to her request to speak, Walker must have savored Washington's words. Who better to illustrate his description of a successful businesswoman than she? Washington had probably seen her well-equipped factory during a visit to Indianapolis the previous summer. He knew she provided jobs for hundreds of Walker agents and "hair culturists" who were selling her products across the country.
Earlier in the evening, Walker had probably heard Julia H.P. Coleman, a pharmacist and hair-care products manufacturer, describe the growing demand among black women for pomades, shampoos and hair oils. And no doubt Walker heard the next morning as Anthony Overton, founder of the Overton Hygienic Company, claimed that his sales of baking powder, hair pomades, face powder and toilet articles had made his business the "largest Negro manufacturing enterprise in the United States."
As Overton completed his remarks, Walker's fellow Hoosier, George Knox, stood and addressed Booker T. Washington from the audience:
"I arise to ask this convention for a few minutes of its time to hear a remarkable woman. ... Madam Walker. The lady I refer to is the manufacturer of hair goods and preparations."
Although he respected Knox - who, like himself, was a former slave who had prospered - Washington curtly dismissed the suggestion. "But, Mr. Knox, we are taking up the question of life membership," he replied, then recognized another speaker.
That evening, as Sears, Roebuck & Co. president Julius Rosenwald dispensed business advice to an attentive packed house, Walker might have wondered how Washington could continue to deny her.
Surely, the presence of Rosenwald, a major contributor to Tuskegee Institute as well as the fund to build YMCAs in black communities across the country, must have reminded Washington that Walker's $1,000 contribution in Indianapolis was the largest any black women had yet made to the effort.
By Friday - the third and final day - a frustrated Walker resolved to confront Washington. During the morning session, as members of the National Banker's Association recounted the development of black-owned banks, Walker mustered her nerve while battling her anger and impatience. Timing, she knew, was crucial. At just the right moment, as Washington prepared to call on yet another banker, Walker seized her chance.
"Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face," she said from the audience. "I feel that I am in a business that is a credit to the womanhood of our race."
After tabulating her impressive, mounting annual income, she aimed a not-so-subtle jab at Washington: "I have been trying to get before you business people and tell you what I am doing.
"I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South," Walker continued, "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. Everybody told me I was making a mistake by going into this business, but I know how to grow hair as well as I know how to grow cotton. ... I have built my own factory on my own ground."
In a setting so controlled by Washington, Walker's remarks must have startled the audience. How could she have been so bold as to challenge this influential dispenser of favors, this adviser to presidents, this dinner guest of the wealthy? She earned, if not Washington's wholehearted acceptance, at least enough respect that she was invited back the next two years as a scheduled speaker.
At the dedication of the Indianapolis YMCA in July 1913, Walker finally received Washington's recognition when he publicly praised her philanthropic generosity. Later, he wrote to her, in a tone very different from his earlier letters, "I want to thank you for the courtesies you showed me while in your magnificent home. You have indeed a model home and business we should all be proud of."
A few weeks later, as Walker awaited her turn as an invited speaker at the 14th annual National Negro Business League conference in Philadelphia, Washington graciously welcomed the woman he had initially snubbed: "I now take pleasure in introducing to the convention one of the most progressive and successful businesswomen of our race - Madam C.J. Walker."
After her remarks, Washington told the delegates, "We thank her for her excellent address and for all she has done for our race. You talk about what the men are doing in a business way. Why, if we don't watch out, the women will excel us."
For Walker, there were few more deeply satisfying moments.
Perhaps she might have preferred a less contentious start to her relationship with Washington, but a lifetime of adversity had taught Walker to cherish the rewards of triumphing over obstacles.
A'Lelia Perry Bundles is Madam C.J. Walker's great-great-granddaughter and biographer. She is writing a book about four generations of Walker women.
Pub Date: 2/08/98