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February is celebrated as Black History Month in the United States. Since 1970, time has been set aside in classrooms in February for discussions of eminent black Americans.
If anybody could be rightfully designated as the father of Black History Month, it would indisputably be Carter G. Woodson. In 1926, he inaugurated a “Negro History Week” in February, which caught on around the country and ultimately expanded to the whole month. He wanted history taught in a way that left nobody out because of his color. In fact, according to the late black historian John Hope Franklin, “Woodson looked forward to the time when it would not be necessary to set aside a week for the observance of black history.”
The history of black Americans is far more than just slavery before 1865, or Jim Crow afterwards, or the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The story of America is full of enterprising black citizens who excelled at business, the arts, athletics, and science. At the bottom of this article, I will post links to some of my own articles that make that very case. For now, let me tell you the story of one of the most remarkable female African-Americans.
Born in 1867, Sarah Breedlove became the first black woman ever to make a million dollars without an inheritance, a wealthy husband, affirmative action or a government favor. She did it all on her own.
Orphaned at seven, married at 14, then widowed at 20 with a young daughter in tow, she was determined that her daughter A’Lelia would get a good, private education. “I got my start from giving myself a start,” she later said. Employed as a washerwoman for about a dollar a day, she worked long and hard and saved enough to actually make that dream a reality. She later took the name “Madam C.J. Walker” (derived from her second husband, Charles James Walker).
Growing up in Louisiana and Mississippi, every day was a “bad hair day” for Walker. Because of poor diet, infrequent washing and damaging hair products, her hair had thinned dramatically by the time of her second marriage. She realized then that the market for quality hair products for black women was nonexistent, and she decided to do something about it.
Learning everything she could about hair and its proper care, she experimented with various concoctions of her own making. In 1905, she formed the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, selling a line of hair care products and cosmetic creams. She assigned daughter A’Lelia to run the mail order operation out of Denver while she and her husband traveled the country recruiting saleswomen.
Eventually, Walker settled in Indianapolis in 1910, where she built her headquarters, a factory, a laboratory, a hair salon, and a beauty school to train the company’s sales agents. By this time, her business was selling products in virtually every state as well as throughout the Caribbean. Her vision was to cure scalp and hair problems and empower black women with both beauty and economic opportunity.
Her most famous formula included a shampoo and a pomade that “transformed lusterless and brittle hair into soft, luxurious hair.” The women she employed wore uniforms of white shirts and black skirts and carried black satchels of product samples as they made house calls all over the United States and the islands of the Caribbean. She believed in self-respect through self-support, a hand-up not a hand-out.
Later, she moved to New York City where she owned a salon larger than those of Helena Rubinstein or Elizabeth Arden. She had a six-figure income, 10,000 agents, new ventures in the Caribbean and Central America, and was hailed as the “World’s Richest Negress.”
She died of hypertension at age 51 in 1919, but left behind a legacy of economic success, generous philanthropy, and political activism on behalf of equality before the law. Millions of black women were inspired by her example and tens of thousands were directly empowered by working for the company she founded.
Though widespread discrimination against both blacks and women taint stories of life in America early in the 20th century, Madam C.J. Walker’s story stands out as a remarkable testament to the spirit of the great civil rights anthem of later years, “We Shall Overcome.” She surely did.
For additional reading, see: