Episode 68: Madam C.J. Walker

Posted 14 May 2016 by

When Madam C.J. Walker solved one of her own personal problems, she also created an opportunity to leave behind a life as a laundress for one as a successful businesswoman, philanthropist and civil rights activists and she was able to take thousands of women with her. Alaia Williams from the 18 to 49 Podcast graciously fills in as guest co-host with Beckett to talk about the life of this trailblazing role model who began to change her fate by changing the condition of her hair.

Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker

Rags to riches stories don’t happen without a lot of hard work, the ability to fill a need, hard work, perseverance and- yeah- hard work. Madam C.J. Walker’s life was all that and more. When she was born on December 23, 1867 in Delta Louisiana, her given name was Sarah Breedlove – and she was the first person in her family who was not born a slave. This fact makes it sound like the family’s life was improving, but they were extremely poor sharecroppers and laundresses; none of the children went to school and by the time Sarah was seven, both of her parents had died.

That was only the beginning of the rags portion of her life. We give all the details in the podcast but Sarah was married at 14, a mother at 17 and by 20 she was a widow. Job opportunities for uneducated black women were pretty slim: house servant or laundress. Sarah pursued the latter- it allowed her to be home with her daughter. The first reward for years of her hard work? She was able to send her daughter, Leila, to school, an option that Sarah never had, then she was able to send Leila to college an option Sarah never stopped thinking was a possibility.

How the formula for her hair care system was developed is wrapped in legend and marketing strategy-but a need to improve the condition of her own hair led Sarah to develop an effective product line. With a newly beautiful head of hair she was a walking advertisement; with a successful sales pitch that involved giving treatments for free while charging for the products she was in business. A marriage to Charles Joseph Walker gave her not only a husband, but a promotional consultant and a fancy new name- Madam C.J. Walker.

Vegetable Shampoo, the packaging showed her beautiful head of hair. The Children's Museum of Indiana

One of Sarah’s first products-Vegetable Shampoo, the packaging showed her beautiful head of hair. ( via The Children’s Museum of Indiana)

Sarah was still working very hard, but the results were much more lucrative. Personal door-to-door sales fulfilled by a mail order department (run by freshly minted college grad, Leila) soon led to expansion: more sales force feet on the ground in more cities, and a beauty school helped sell a lot of Sarah’s products and helped black women across the country gain new skills and careers as they learned the “Walker Method” of sales and hair care.

Because when you can, you do. Former illiterate laundress turned self-made millionaire entrepreneur in the driver's seat (literally AND figuratively.)

Because when you can, you do. Former illiterate laundress turned self-made millionaire entrepreneur in the driver’s seat (literally AND figuratively.)

Sarah herself kept learning, too. She learned to read and write and drive; she traveled and was able to up her philanthropy on a global scale including large contributions to both the YMCA and the NAACP. She was wealthy by anyone’s standards but was one of the wealthiest black women in America. Everything about her was grand– from the way she carried herself, to the assistance she gave others to her dream house, Villa Lewaro in New York.

Villa Lewaro

Villa Lewaro

Rich in both financial wealth and generous actions, Sarah’s life was going very well. Her daughter and granddaughter were living and working with her; she was active in a number of causes and her social circle was full of artists and activists. She had worked to earn success for herself while helping others achieve their own and had no plans to stop anything- but about a year after moving into Villa Lewaro complications from high blood pressure took her life on May 25,1919.

The new line of Madam C.J.Walker products is available at Sephora.

The new line of Madam C.J.Walker products (Sephora)

 

 

TIME TRAVEL WITH THE HISTORY CHICKS

Intrigued to hear more from the edutaining Alaia Williams? On the 18-49 podcast she and Brandi Holmes bring you all the class and all the trash in movies, television and pop culture each week, but she does a lot more than that- check it all out at her website, alaiawilliam.com.18to49-artwork-300x300

ONLINE!

The former Walker Manufacturing Plant in Indianapolis, Indiana is on the register of National Historical Landmarks. In it’s heyday the building housed not only a manufacturing facility but a beauty school, pharmacy and movie theater. Now it’s the Madam Walker Theater Center- a theater and educational center...you should go next time you’re there!

Madam Walker’s great, great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles is the source for all things Madam Walker. Her personal website as well as several others that she is involved with are where you can find all the pictures we won’t use because, well, we are law abiding chicks. Here is the official Madam C.J. Walker website for even more intel and photos. Read here about Walker’s funeral and about how Woodlawn Cemetery in NY was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Everything you need to know about hot combs (well, five of them anyway) from Madamnoire.com.

Mark your calendars and plan a trip to Washington, DC! On September 24, 2016 the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture will open! Here is a sneak peek from the Washington Post.national museum

 

If you aren’t in Louisiana you can click around on this site to learn more about the African-American Heritage Trail...but if you ARE in Louisiana you should get busy, there is A LOT to see!

Chris Rock made a documentary covering everything about black women’s hair after his daughter asked, “Daddy, why don’t I have good hair?” Good Hair 

Beckett has posted the Pinterest Board for Madam C.J. Walker, she’s got a lot of great things pinned already and will add more as she stumbles across them (like she does for all the episode boards. Go check it out and give us a follow!

We know you were wondering more about Precipitated Sulphur from Chest of Books dot Com, who wouldn’t want to know more? Science.

Finally! You can braid hair in Nebraska without going to jail!

 

BOOKS!

On Her Own Ground, Bundles

On Her Own Ground, Bundles

Bundles

Good for the younger set, Madam C.J. Walker: Entrepreneur by A’Leia Bundles

Gates West

The African-American Century bu Henry Louis Gates, Jr and Cornell West

By Mary Kay Carson

By Mary Kay Carson

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Special thanks to our show sponsors, MeUndies and Audible Audiobooks

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