Echoes Dispatches From Economic History
Madam C.J. Walker, the first black millionaire, driving circa 1900. Source: Indiana Historical Society
The First Black Millionaire: Echoes
Imagine a black-woman millionaire 100 years ago -- one whose wealth came from her own manufacturing company. Madam C.J. Walker invented hair-care products and cosmetics that she manufactured for black women and distributed herself, in the process providing jobs for thousands and almost single-handedly expanding the black middle class of Indianapolis.
As we wrap up Black History Month, it's worth remembering her story.
Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on a cotton plantation in Delta, Louisiana, where her emancipated parents worked. At age 6, Sarah was orphaned and left Louisiana for Vicksburg, Mississippi, to live with her sister. There she trained as a domestic servant. She married at 14 and had a daughter, A'Lelia, at 18. Her husband died two years later.
On her own in 1887, Sarah moved north with her child to St. Louis, where she worked as a laundress. By the time Sarah was in her 30s, she had moved to Denver, and was losing her hair. After experimenting with various products, in 1907 she invented a formula that caused her hair to grow again. She began her business by selling the homemade product to friends and family as well as door-to-door. With help from her second husband, newspaperman Charles Joseph Walker, Sarah became an entrepreneur who advertised a growing number of hair-care products in black newspapers.
Her business grew, and she took the professional name Madam C. J. Walker. Madam, as friends called her, was following the turn-of-the-century trend among middle-class and professional black women. They publicly used their initials or added "Mrs." to their husband's name as a sign of respectability, and as a ruse to prevent white people whom they didn't know from addressing them by their first names.
This was the era of legal segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the rest of the nation. At the time, black business owners typically set up shop in their own communities, focusing on services -- such as hair care -- that white communities wouldn't have offered to black patrons. Walker used this situation to her advantage -- she aimed to employ black people, and to help women find the products they wanted without having to leave their segregated neighborhoods.
In 1910, Walker moved her company to Indianapolis, which she thought would be an ideal place to manufacture and distribute her products. A segregated Midwestern city, Indianapolis had a large black community with many educated women. Walker's goal was to expand her company by operating her own factory, opening hair salons and employing a cadre of Walker Agents, primarily women, who sold Walker hair-and-skin products to their clients. Her efforts expanded Indianapolis's black middle class, providing jobs for more than 3,000 women and new opportunities for salon franchises.
At the National Negro Business League Convention in 1912, Walker said: "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."
As the company grew, Walker's lawyer and business associate, Freeman B. Ransom, and her daughter, A'Lelia, managed her affairs as she raised money and traveled in support of her charities and causes. After Walker's death in 1919, Ransom and A'Lelia continued the business.
By 1927, the Walker Company had built a multipurpose corporate headquarters in Indianapolis, called the Walker Building, with a new factory, a theater, a ballroom and office space in the heart of the black commercial district. The theater became a venue for live jazz, as well as movies, helping to make the segregated Indianapolis movie houses obsolete. The office space provided modern facilities for black professionals to rent. Managing the new headquarters required support staff, providing jobs for the black community even as the nation entered the Great Depression.
The Walker Company thrived into the 1950s, but by the '70s the neighborhood and the business were in decline. The Walker Building lost tenants until only the factory remained. And new competition emerged from white-owned businesses eager to get into the so-called race market by developing cosmetics geared toward black women, helping drive black companies out.
Nonetheless, a local group in Indianapolis called for a Walker Building renaissance in 1979. They purchased the decaying building and, after almost a decade of fundraising, the newly renovated Madam C.J. Walker Building opened in 1988. A decade later, the building became a National Historic Site.
Today it stands as a symbol of Walker's dedication to employing black women, and as a reminder of the long struggle of a self-made millionaire, the first among African Americans.
(Rosalyn Terborg-Penn is University Professor Emerita at Morgan State University and the co-founder of the Association of Black Women Historians. She is the author of numerous books, including "African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920.")
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