Black History Month: Madame C.J. Walker

As part of our series on Black History Month, Callece Gresham  writes about her experience in a Washington DC school for Black History Month.

Black History Month is celebrated widely amongst many dominant African- American private and public schools in the DC Region. It was a very special time of the year to learn about African- American historical leaders, innovators, inventors, civil rights activists, and overall trailblazers for the American people.

As a child, I attended a school that celebrated this month by allowing the students to select a historical African- American leader of their choice and present to their class on their selected hero. We were able to be very creative with our presentations by dressing in costume, displaying memorabilia, and selecting volunteers to participate in the presentation. During the presentations, various parents, faculty, and staff members would sit in the classroom to observe the students. It was quite interesting to listen to my fellow peers present their researched information (when encyclopedias existed) on their chosen hero and gain insight on how that person played a role in the history of the United States of America. Although I can recall many of my former class mate’s presentations, I had the great honor of being Madame C.J. Walker.
Madame C.J. Walker, also referred to as Sarah Breedlove, was a remarkable entrepreneur who was one of the first African-American millionaires. She founded a hair care and cosmetics empire from scratch and was able to impact and empower many African-American women that struggled with the loss of hair. Walker came from a background of small beginnings where she started as an uneducated laundress and migrated into a corporate executive- making herself one of the earliest self-made millionaires.
Madame Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana in 1867 to her parents Owen and Minerva Breedlove. She was one of five children who worked cotton plantation fields under slavery until the end of the American Civil War. When Sarah’s parents passed away, Sarah was forced to go and live with one of her sisters at the tender age of 7. After a short while, she needed a quick escape route from living in her sister’s home because of the mistreatment she was under from her brother-in-law. Her route of escape began when she married Moses McWilliams at the age of 14 years old and moved out of her sister’s home. Years later, Walker and her husband conceived a baby girl by the name of Leilia.

Unfortunately, by the age of 20, Walker’s husband passed away leaving her with the responsibility of raising a child on her own. Walker refused to allow the stigma that was placed on her to trickle over into her daughter’s life. Being that Walker was uneducated, she wanted her daughter to receive a more formal education. After the death of her husband, Walker relocated to St. Louis, Missouri where she became a laundress, earning no more than one dollar each week- however, was able to save enough money to allow her daughter to reap the benefits of a valuable education.
Nonetheless, as a laundress, Walker was exposed to many harsh chemicals that were fatal to her hair. As she began to bald, she started experimenting with formulas until she discovered an ointment and a cleansing regiment that healed her scalp and allowed her hair to grow.

From this moment on, Madame Walker began advertising and selling her products by going door-to-door and demonstrating the products on potential clients. During this time, Walker met and married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper salesman, who helped her market and advertise her products. It was after her marriage to Charles Walker that she adopted the name Madame C.J. Walker. Since the commencement of her marriage, Walker continued to grow her business- so much so that she built a factory, hair salon, and two schools in honor of her daughter to train her sales agents. She became very involved in her community’s political activities and donated thousands of dollars in support of many civil rights causes, such as the anti-lynching funds.
Madame C.J. Walker’s story denotes one of integrity and determination. Her life story is still acknowledged and shared amongst many in the African- American community to this present day. Whenever someone would ask Madame Walker how she achieved such great success, she would proudly tell them: “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success, and if there is, I have not found it, for whatever success I have attained has been the result of much hard work and many sleepless nights. I got my start by giving myself a start. So don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. You have to get up and make them for yourselves!
-Callece Gresham (Public Affairs)