Madam C. J. Walker – A Pioneering Black American Woman

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As the interlocutor on Monty Python used to say, “And now for something completely different.”

As a kid in Indianapolis in the 40’s and 50’s I was all too aware of segregation. Many parts of the city were “black” while others were “white.” Many schools were segregated. Living as I did on the edge of a black district, the schools that I attended were mixed race. I didn’t see that as much of a blessing at the time. Interracial fights were common and race was always the unwelcome elephant in the room. Nevertheless, it did teach me that we must learn to get along with each other. It also taught me that life was much simpler if you learned to be colour blind.

One black area of town that was particularly famous was the area we called, “Indiana Avenue.” As children, we were of course, supposed to stay away from there. And, of course, we didn’t.

One place that fascinated me was the Walker Theatre:

Main entrance of the Walker Theatre in Indianapolis, Indiana

It was more than a theatre. The building contained several businesses and was situated at the centre of a thriving black business and residential community. Sadly, today the Walker Theatre is about the only surviving landmark:

The Walker Theatre Building in Indianapolis, Indiana

The genius behind much of this was Sarah Breedlove, born in Delta, Louisiana, the first member of her family to be born free. Her parents had been slaves. At age 14, she married a man named Moses McWilliams and was widowed at age 20. While living in St. Louis, she joined St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, which helped develop her speaking, interpersonal and organizational skills. She was married in 1894 to John Davis and divorced about nine years later.

Sarah Breedlove, a. k. a. Madam C. J. Walker

When she began to lose her hair, she had the idea for a line of hair care products. Sarah moved to Denver, Colorado, where she worked as a sales agent for Annie Malone, another black woman entrepreneur who manufactured hair care products. Sarah also consulted with a Denver pharmacist, who analysed Malone’s formula and helped Walker formulate her own products. This may have been the first case of industrial espionage in American Black History. In addition, she often told reporters that the ingredients for her “Wonderful Hair Grower” had come to her in a dream:

Madam C. J. Walker's "Wonderful Hair Grower"

She opened a permanent office in Pittsburgh in 1908, which her daughter ran, and in 1910 she formed Madame C. J. Walker Laboratories in Indianapolis, where she developed products and trained her beauticians, known as “Walker Agents.” The agents and the products were recognized in black communities throughout the U.S. and Caribbean for promoting the philosophy that cleanliness and loveliness could advance the plight of African-Americans.

Eventually, her products formed the basis of a thriving national corporation employing at one point over 3,000 people. Her Walker System, which included a broad offering of cosmetics, licensed Walker Agents, and Walker Schools offered meaningful employment and personal growth to thousands of Black women. Madame Walker’s aggressive marketing strategy combined with relentless ambition led her to be labeled as the first known African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire.

Advertisement for Madam C. J. Walker's Products

Madam Walker amassed a fortune in a mere fifteen years. Her prescription for success was perseverance, hard work, faith in herself and in God, “honest business dealings” and of course, quality products. “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she once observed. “And if there is, I have not found it – for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”

Madam C. J. Walker's house at Irvington-on-the-Hudson, New York

Madam Walker was also known for her philanthropy, leaving two-thirds of her estate to educational institutions and charities including the NAACP, the Tuskegee Institute and Bethune-Cookman College. In 1919, her $5,000 pledge to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign was the largest gift the organization had ever received. She died soon after, on May 25, 1919, at age 51, at her estate, Villa Lewaro, due to kidney failure and other complications resulting from hypertension. She was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. At her death, the multi-million dollar estate was left to various philanthropic organizations and to her daughter, whose philanthropic endeavours were key to funding the Harlem Renaissance.

I was aware of none of this as a child. I wonder how much better race relations could have been if school children had learned of the contributions of all of the citizens of the land – not just the white ones. How would a school-sponsored class visit to Madam Walker’s laborotories have affected our white-bread ignorance of the accomplishments of black Americans?

I wonder . . .

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26 Responses to “Madam C. J. Walker – A Pioneering Black American Woman”

  1. Eunice Says:

    This is one of the best posts you have done. I am very proud of you.

  2. mymadang Says:

    Hi Eunie,

    Thanks for the complement. It’s nice to hear that from one’s own wife!


  3. James Goksina Says:

    Searched divorced rights in msn but for some reason found this page.great info

  4. Interracial Personals Says:

    Whatz Expert, what made you want to write on . J. Walker – A Pioneering Black American Woman | Madang – Ples Bilong Mi? I was wondering, because I have been thinking about this since last Saturday.

  5. Felix Says:

    Thanks a heap, i have always wondered what the walker theater was. It awsome that Ms. Walker made such a difference in the world. I feel that schools today should tell of what she did. Also we need to restore the building some, so that it remains standing for genarations to come.

  6. MadDog Says:

    As I was growing up, I spent a lot of time down town. I lived only a mile from the circle. I was always curious about the Walker Theater. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I bothered to check it out. She was a remarkable person and her legacy should not be forgotten. I wish that that whole area of town could be restored, but much of it is already gone forever. When I was visiting Indianapolis a few couple of years ago, I took the photo intending to write about it.

    Thanks for reading my journal.

  7. Bill Says:

    I am very interested in memorabilia from her. Do you know where or who I may purchase any from? Thank you

  8. MadDog Says:

    I’m sorry that I don’t know of any place where you can get memorabilia. She was certainly a great lady. I might suggest an hour or so of Googling or checking on EBay. You never know what might turn up. Also, I’m sure that there must be some organisation involving her estate. A diligent search might turn something up.

    Thanks for reading,

  9. Tanya Says:

    Great post. I have been looking for information about this woman for a while now. I can’t believe that her story is not as popular as it should be.




  11. MadDog Says:

    Thanks for your kind comment, Valerie. Sadly, Madam Walker is largely forgotten by history, even in Indianapolis.

    I’m not certain that I understand your “think like me” reference. However, if it refers to my attitude towards race, I can explain that I grew up in a neighborhood where the racial tension was high and schools were mixed. I learned that the easiest way to get along was to become colour blind. I’m no more noble or wise than the next guy. I simply prefer that life be easy. You don’t make life easier by erecting meaningless barriers between people. To me, racism is the stupidest barrier of them all.

  12. MadDog Says:

    Thanks, Tanya. She was certainly a great lady and had a good head for business. I enjoyed writing about her. I grew up within walking distance of the Walker Theatre and the Indiana Avenue area which was, at the time, the most lively and thriving black area of Indianapolis.

  13. Ahna Says:

    I live here and really never new her history. Shame on me and the school system. I have however have been to the Madame Walker Theater. Very beautiful place to be and perform. When I was dancing and teaching I was involved in high performance dance team from our studio and had three teams. When competitions come to town they seem to go here and the Murat theater. I personally liked Walker Theater. As for not being aware of different cultlures here. I was in the midst of bussing students from inner city to outer township schools because of the ill kept public schools. I will have to say that I loved it and could not see what the big fuss was as a kid in my beginning mid teen stage. I have had a lot of coloured friends and still to this day are good friends with them. I will have to say they are very passionate of worshiping God and the respect they have for their mamas. I went to a friends wake for her father and was blown away of their passion to celebrate death. Needless to say I got alot of looks of surprise to be the only white person there and I got wrapped up into the celebration myself. A great life experience. I guess I get it from my mom and dad as she never was racists and supported the intergration in her time and I know dads later days seemed to not care of colour as well. “its not the colour it’s the beauty within”.

  14. MadDog Says:

    It’s not your fault that you know nothing of Madang Walker. The public schools never recognised the part that black Americans played in the growth of Indianapolis. Another amusing item is that, on your dad’s side, there was a history of involvment in the Ku Klux Klan. Google “knightstown indiana” and klan in the same search for some alarming information. I seem to remember that my great grandfather or some uncle was a Wizard in the Klan. The Klan is still alive and kicking in Knightstown. A bunch of human roaches as far as I’m concerned.

  15. Ahna Says:

    Amen to that, I really dont understand that type of involvment and hatred. Emily was talking to the little boy next door “Joseph” (whos parents are from Africa) they were compairing skin tones. I over heard the conversation of tanning and Joseph was very perplexed about this. He state “you cant be dark like me” Emily stated “Uh-huh I just get brown”, Joseph stated “Nuh Uh your white and you only get red, I get brown”. I loved it, they had no clue of the difference only one tans more than the other. How simple. I have always told them God made us the same on the inside just painted all of us different color like the rainbow. Simple for now.

  16. MadDog Says:

    I see that kind of play here among children, Ahna. It’s too bad that most adults can’t see colour the same way. Maybe in 50,000 years we’ll all be golden brown and the problem will go away.

  17. Kayla Says:

    I wanted to say thank you for posting so much of her. My grandfather told me stories about her, when her folks where on the plantation, his father use to own. I hate to know that we at one point in our history had owned slaves. In all reality that was, the way of life back then. Now things are much different. I often wonder what they, would think how we live today. However on the plantation that she was on, all the slaves, had to read and write. Thats how it was. I am the grand daughter of Robert (Burny) Long. May she rest in peace <3 Let freedom ring.

  18. MadDog Says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Kayla, and thanks for telling us of your history. Slavery was a great shame for America. What might the world have been like today if it had continued?

    Was that Robert Burney Long of Madison Parrish, LA, born in 1888? – (Just Curious)

    Yes, indeed, Let Freedom Ring!

  19. Sherry Says:

    Where do you buy African American Art in Indy?

  20. MadDog Says:

    Sherry, I haven’t lived in Indy for more than thirty years. Sorry I can’t help.

  21. Kayla Says:

    Yes maddog, Thats my great grandfather.

  22. MadDog Says:

    Wow, Kayla. That’s very cool! I can’t believe that I found him. It took about a half hour of Googling. Thanks for letting me know.

  23. Kayla Says:

    Your very welcome 🙂 I am glad. He is very dear to to me and my family, he was there when Madam walker recieved her stamp and the musem – well I dont know what when on. He is a wonderful person, he loves to tell his stories, he is alaso is a character. 🙂 Thank you and your very welcome again. 🙂

  24. Anthony Neely Says:

    MadDog, your post is a few years old now, but it was very helpful to me as I research the Madame Walker Theatre and Indiana Avenue for a book I’m ghostwriting.

    John W. Barfield, a great black businessman who is still living, commissioned me to tell his story and part of it includes a year he spent in Indianapolis: 1947-48. He thoroughly enjoyed the bustling African American business and entertainment district you described.

    It was great to read your perspective on this district as an Indianapolis native, and I heartily endorse your views on how education should be improved in American schools. I’m going to try to do my part.

    God bless you!

  25. Anthony Neely Says:

    I guess I misspelled Madam. I’ll get it right in the book!

  26. MadDog Says:

    Thanks, Anthony, for taking time to comment. I certainly wish you good fortune for your writing commission. Please let me know when the book is published. I’d like to read it. I go back to Indiana Avenue whenever I visit Indy. Sadly, it is hardly recognizable.