A Standing Ovation for Madam C.J. Walker...
"I want you to know that whatever I have accomplished in life, I have paid for it by much thought and hard work. If there is an easy way, I haven't found it"... "My advice to everyone expecting to go into business is to hit often and hit hard... In other words, strike with all your might."
~Madam C.J. Walker~
"There are a couple of attachments I have to this story. First, I am a woman, one who has overcome many obstacles while paving my very own entrepreneurial pathway. Second, Madam C.J. Walker is one of my biggest inspirations. Without her work and will, the haircare industry would not be what it is today."
And the story starts here......
It was 1990, the year the killer bees were suppose to strike. Well, I wasn't worried about killer bees. I had other things happening. Fresh out of hair school and working my first hair gig at Christines of Times Square, I felt like I was in New York City! I looked to my elder stylists in the game like Christine Gomes, Troi Ollivierre, and Felicio Franco, and through them, the history of the hair world was revealed to me. I knew just who I wanted and not wanted to be in the hair world. That being said, I absorbed all of the information I could, and became pretty intrigued with how the hair world had evolved over time. I wanted to know who the creators responsible for this amazing, ever evolving industry were.
A trip to the hair show.
Christine brought me to an international hair show in Boston and introduced me to all of the great stylists whom she had learned her skills from. I was fascinated after watching haircare legend, Olive Benson and her stylists demonstrate her signature hair wrapping technique. At this time Olive owned Olives of Boston in the Southend and later a ritzy location in Chestnut Hill, Ma. Accomplished career ladies flocked to her classy salons to learn what not to do to their hair. Olive created her own product line and was involved in the research and creation of many black haircare products on the market today. At the hair show, she shared with the audience her haircare philosophy that centered around true haircare. It was then that I learned how she was inspired by the works of Madam C.J. Walker... And it was then that I knew just who I wanted to be in this industry... and the rest is history.
Fast forward to May of 2021.
I signed up to hear Madam C.J. Walkers great-great granddaughter, A'Leila Bundles, speak about her legacy. She had been invited by Marlissa Briggett of the Southcoast Almanac
to speak about Madam Walker's life and career via Youtube Live.. She also was promoting the Netflix series "Self Made" which was inspired by her book On her Own Ground, The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker. I was so excited to personally hear A'Leila speak about the woman who, for so long, intrigued me. The story gets better! I learned in A' Leila's interview that Madam Walkers philanthropy was based on the womens' suffrage groups of New England. And ironically, Madam Walker had visited New Bedford to spend time with her friend and fellow philathropist, Elizabeth Carter Brooks. I attended Elizabeth Carter Brooks Elementary School and so did my children! And it gets even better! After signing up to attend the online interview, I learned that the Southcoast Almanac was also conducting a "Walking Book Tour" to highlight minority/black owned businesses in light of Madam Walker and my salon, Beauty Union, was the first stop on the tour! I decided to join them for the walk, and soon became one of the tour guides as I spoke about all of my fellow minority business owners and their respectable businesses. What fun! Inspiring!
Watch the video above for scenes from the Walking Book Club tour.
Now if you don't know about Madam C.J. Walker, she was the first woman millionaire who created a hair tonic to treat hair loss, not only for black women, but white women as well. She was also a philanthropist and political activist during the Women's Suffrage movement, and used her power and earnings to give back and pave the way for women and children.
Born Sarah Breedlove in December of 1867 to slave parents in Delta, Louisiana, life wasn't easy in the cotton fields. She was orphaned by the age of 7, married at 14, became a mom at 17, and was widowed by the age of 20. Many women never rise up from this type of hardship and loss. But she did!
After relocating to Saint Louis and joining the AME Church, Sarah worked as the "wash woman" until she was 38 years old. She lived with her brothers who were barbers. Around this time she began to experience hair loss. Many women in that day did not wash or bathe much during the winter months leading to scalp infections and hair loss. She created a tonic made with sulfur to cure her own scalp and her hair grew back! This led to her training her army of representatives who spread the word all over the United States and the Caribbean. Through creating jobs for thousands of people, an empire was built, the hair game grew, and Madam Walker became the first black American woman to become a self made millionaire! It is true that she lived in a mansion next to John D. Rockefeller. And she built her brand alongside beauty pioneers, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden" .
Madam C.J. Walker was born...
In 1916, a successful Madam moved to Harlem and opened a salon in her townhouse. She put her earnings into worthy causes and did not spare when it came to purchasing fine furnishings and funding her daughter's extravagant lifestyle. She became a philanthropist, a political activist, and a patron of the arts.
Many things were taking place during this time. It was the first Great Depression, and silver was devalued in Germany. Still, the haircare industry flourished as women flocked to cure their scalps with Madams magic tonic. What she did for women and mankind stretches far from behind the chair. She donated one thousand dollars to the YMCA (which was a lot during that time). She became interested in political issues and wanted to join in the same activities as the men. She asked to speak at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Convention, and after writing him a letter and being snubbed, she showed up on his porch and asked to speak to him. She never gave up on her quest to be heard.
One year later, she arrived, not on the program, at the National Negro Business League Convention and asked to speak about her contributions and empire. Booker did not allow her to speak citing that they were discussing memberships. Then he invited her neighbor, who was not discussing memberships to the podium. This neighbor, a man who only gave two hundred and fifty dollars to the YMCA, was allowed to speak. Madam grew upset and before the convention convened, she stood up and said....
"Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face. I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to wash woman... From there I was promoted to the kitchen... From there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations, and I have built my own factory on my own ground!"
The next year she was invited to speak.
Madam Walker passed away May 25, 1919. She was 51.