Earlier this year, a mini-series on Netflix was released called Self Made. The mini-series is inspired by the life of the first self-made Black female millionaire Madam C.J. Walker. The life and work of Madam C.J. Walker is an important story to tell because it celebrates the success of a Black woman and the beauty of Black hair.
A few months ago, Kat Graham from The Vampire Diaries did a morning routine video on Vogue’s YouTube channel called “Kat Graham’s Natural Hair Beauty Routine.” During the video, she explained to her viewers that this is the first time that she has been completely without additional assistance when taking care of her hair. While Graham was talking about a hair care product that she was introduced to that really helped her hair throughout quarantine, she started crying and getting emotional.
Watching the video made me reflect on my own experiences with my hair as a Black woman. It also made me reflect on how having Black hair is an emotional, personal, and empowering journey. Madam C.J. Walker is a woman who truly understood the emotional and empowering experience of having black hair. And ultimately, she was able to use her experience to become a successful entrepreneur and help other Black women.
Before she was known as Madam C.J. Walker she was born as Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, on a Louisiana plantation. Her parents were both enslaved before the Civil War ended and later became sharecroppers. At the age of seven, her parents passed away.
After their deaths, she moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi with her sister and worked picking cotton. At the age of 14, she got married to escape her abusive brother-in-law and had her daughter A’Lelia Walker at 18 years of age. Two years after giving birth to her daughter, Walker’s first husband died. After his death, she and her daughter moved to St. Louis, to work for $1.50 a day at a barbershop owned by her four brothers. In St. Louis, she joined the St. Paul A.M.E. Church and the National Association of Colored Women. She also got married to her second husband, but the couple eventually divorced.
Walker’s hair care journey began in the 1890s and early 1900s. She was struggling financially and developed a scalp disorder that caused her to lose her hair. In order to work on growing her hair back, she sought advice from her brothers and experimented with home remedies. She also tried hair products by Annie Malone, another prosperous Black hair-care entrepreneur. After using Annie Malone products, she became a commission agent and moved to Denver in 1905.
In Denver, she met her third husband, Charles J. Walker. Soon after meeting her husband, she began her brand. Her husband encouraged her to use the name “Madam C.J. Walker” so that her brand name would be more recognizable. She began traveling throughout the South and Southeast for almost two years selling and promoting her “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower,” which was a scalp conditioning and healing ointment.
By 1910, she was able to settle down in Indianapolis where she built a factory, a hair salon, a nail salon, and a hair care training school. Throughout her life, she used her own personal experience of losing and regrowing her hair to build a prosperous Black business. Today, she is known not only as the first Black self-made female millionaire, but also as a Black woman who supported her community as a pioneer of hair care for Black women.
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