When we think of successful African-American women today, we immediately think of Oprah Winfrey.
Successful as she is, though, she was not the first African-American female tycoon. That honor goes to Madame C.J. Walker.
She was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23 1867 in Delta, Mississippi to parents who had been slaves. Like many young women in the rural South, she had to work in the cotton fields to earn income. Sarah
Married at a young age- fourteen-years-old, in her case- and later gave birth to daughter Lelia. Her husband died and she was a widow before the age of 20, who needed to make a decent living to support her and her child. For that reason, she moved to St. Louis, where four of her brothers were already working successfully as barbers, and gained employment as a laundress, where she earned about $1.50 per day for all of her labor.
Her existence was made more bearable by the friendships she made at the National Association of Colored Women and a local A.M.E. church she joined. Getting to know other African-American women expanded her horizons socially and attitude-wise, giving her the confidence to believe that every opportunity was possible.
The set of circumstances that set the wheels in motion for her eventual success started out with a scalp ailment Sarah had that caused her much frustration, as it left her bald. She experimented with homemade hair tonics to relieve her problem and also tried products by an African-American female businesswoman by the name of Annie Malone. A move to Denver, Colorado netted her a sales agent job with Ms. Malone, as well as new husband Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaperman.
The ambitious Sarah Walker made a name change to “Madame” C.J. Walker and started her own business, focusing on selling cosmetics and her original creation Madame Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, based on the formula she used to restore her own hair. With amazing fortitude, she marketed her products via a huge sales drive on the road and, as knowledge of her and her products grew, droves of African-American women clamored to purchased them. She expanded her base of operations to other areas, as well as to the Caribbean and Central America.
Such economic progress for a woman-owned independent business was extraordinary for those times, particularly since she was an African-American woman. “Madame” Walker was able to live in grandeur and provide her daughter Lelia with the wealthy lifestyle she herself had not grown up with. “Madame” opened beauty schools, employed over 3, 000 people, owned real estate and became a philanthropist. She was living the “American Dream” when African-Americans were not supposed to be “able” to.
After relocating to Harlem,she became a highly-influential community leader in Harlem, taking bold stands on social issues important to African-Americans, such as lynching. Her corporation had conventions and she enthusiastically did all she could to encourage those who worked for her to become successful and to become vocal about social injustice. “Madame” Walker was a force to be reckoned with, accumulating her tremendous fortune in the mere space of 15 years.
“Madame” C.J. Walker died at the relatively young age of 52, leaving a third of her estate for philanthropic purposes.
As great as Oprah Winfrey’s accomplishments are, I think “Madame’s” were even greater, because they were done in a climate where racism was prevalent. The fact that she still succeeded is a testament to her perseverance and determination.