Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.

Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theater. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora that same year. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They secured a protective easement for the site, in order to prevent future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker. Earlier this month, the home was acquired by the New Voices Foundation, a leadership-focused organization that helps women entrepreneurs of color achieve their visions.

"Under the 25-year stewardship of Ambassador Harold Doley Jr. and his wife Helena, Villa Lewaro flourished as a monument to all that Madam Walker represented; the spirit of American entrepreneurship, perseverance in the face of adversity, and African American achievement," Brent Leggs, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, said in a statement. "We believe that the New Voices Foundation’s and Dennis Family’s stewardship of this site will not only ensure its future, but will lay the foundation for a new generation of entrepreneurs and cultural leaders to explore ways they too can preserve places that help to tell the full American story.”

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted Netflix series about her life, which is based on On Her Own Ground, a biography written by Bundles.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

This article originally ran in 2017.

The Story of Kate Warne, America's First Female Private Detective

The young woman smiled as she met her brother at a train station in Philadelphia on the evening of February 22, 1861. Her sibling was tall but stooped over and covered in a shawl, rendering his facial features difficult for passerby to discern. To anyone who asked, she explained that her brother had taken ill and needed some breathing room.

On the sleeper car of the passenger train, the woman slipped cash to the conductor, urging him to avoid placing anyone else at the rear of the car. Accompanied by three other men in addition to her sibling, she settled in for a long night’s train ride.

It was no ordinary trip, however. The woman had lied when she said the man was her brother. In fact, he was president-elect Abraham Lincoln, traveling through a hotbed of secessionist activity on his way to his inauguration in Washington, D.C. Her name was Kate Warne—and she was the first female private detective in America.

 

Given her status as a pioneer in law enforcement, surprisingly little is known about Warne’s past. No verified photos of her are known to exist, and she left behind no comprehensive chronicle of her landmark work. Then again, adopting various guises in the pursuit of intelligence meant that obscuring her true history was often a matter of professional obligation.

Warne was born in Erin, New York, in 1830 or 1833. Coming from a family of modest means, she had only a limited education. She was interested in becoming an actress, but her family opposed the idea and she soon abandoned that ambition. While she later described herself as a widow, there are no details about her marriage or the fate of a husband, who reportedly died in an accident. Warne’s life seemed to begin in 1856, when the 23-year-old walked into the Pinkerton National Detective Agency offices in Chicago and declared that she would like to become a detective.

Pinkerton was named for and run by Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish immigrant who worked as a deputy sheriff and for the Chicago police department. In the 1850s, he opened a private agency that soon had offices in several major cities. The Pinkerton name became renowned for its diligent approach to complicated matters that perplexed local law enforcement.

Pinkerton had high standards, but he was also prey to the gender biases of the era. Female police officers or detectives were virtually unheard of at the time, and Pinkerton assumed the young woman in front of him—whom he later described as “slender, graceful in her movements, and perfectly self-possessed in her manner” with “eyes filled with fire”—was looking for secretarial work.

A magnifying glass and papers are pictured

Warne corrected him. She pointed out that he had placed an ad looking for new hires and that she had come to Pinkerton for the express purpose of becoming a private detective. She explained that his force lacked a key component when it came to gathering intelligence—being able to assume the role of a woman’s confidante. By ingratiating herself, she said, she would be likely to discover information about crimes plotted by husbands, who tended to make their wives privy to schemes that involved enriching the family’s coffers. And she would also be able to take advantage of the fact that men tended to brag when women were around.

Pinkerton was not wholly convinced. It took several meetings with Warne before he decided to ignore convention and hire her. Later, Pinkerton would describe her as one of the five best agents he had ever employed.

A compelling dossier of cases followed. In 1858, Warne was tasked with obtaining a lead on a case involving the theft of $10,000 from the Adams Express Company railroad. The agency suspected a man named Nathan Maroney, the manager of the company’s Montgomery, Alabama, offices, since he was believed to be the last employee to see the money before it disappeared. Warne was dispatched to Montgomery, and when she arrived, she quickly charmed Mrs. Maroney. She soon divulged that her husband had not only taken the cash, but that she knew where to find it—hidden in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. Nathan Maroney was convicted, and all but a few hundred dollars recovered.

On another occasion, Warne thwarted a plot to poison a wealthy Captain Sumner by posing as a fortune teller. Pinkerton rented out a space for her to ply her trade—which she quickly learned from books on the subject—and hosted Sumner's sister, Annie Thayer. Thayer was impressed by Warne's knowledge of her life, which had been prepared by the Pinkterton agents. Trusting that Warne had a real gift for divination, she eventually disclosed that she was under the direction of a lover named Mr. Pattmore to assist in the murder of Pattmore's wife and her own brother, Captain Sumner, so they could enjoy his fortune. (Pattmore was convicted of his wife's murder and spent 10 years in prison; the pair were caught before they could murder Sumner.)

Warne’s success in these efforts was due in large part to her demeanor, which Pinkerton would later describe as being warm and affable. People seemed eager to share secrets with her, even if those secrets were incriminating. But part of it was also Warne’s unique place among law enforcement officials. Early on, no one could suspect her of being a detective because it was considered impossible that a woman would be occupying that role.

 

As successful as Warne was, it was her efforts on behalf of Abraham Lincoln that became the highlight of her career.

Shortly before Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, railroad magnate and Lincoln ally Samuel Morse Felton realized that the secessionists stirring against the new president were growing more dangerous by the minute. There were even rumors they might interfere with railroads to and from Washington to disrupt Lincoln's entry into office. In the absence of a Secret Service, which had yet to be conceived, Felton wrote to Pinkerton for assistance.

Though Felton didn’t yet know it, the secessionists planned on more than just blocking Lincoln’s travels from Springfield, Illinois: Lincoln was also receiving death threats involving everything from a knife to a spider-filled dumpling.

 A photo of Allan Pinkerton circa 1861
Allan Pinkerton
Brady's National Photographic Galleries, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Felton and Pinkerton met in Philadelphia. Pinkerton advised that any true threat against the president was likely to materialize in Baltimore, the only major slaveholding city on Lincoln's itinerary aside from Washington, as well as an inevitable stop—all potential routes to the inauguration involved a stop there. Worse, Lincoln planned to arrive at one train station and then depart from another one mile away. There would be ample opportunity for a person or persons to commit an assault.

Pinkerton dispatched several agents to investigate, including Warne, who posed as a southern ally complete with an accent and a cockade, or a knot of ribbons that signaled Southern sympathies. It was a routine she had already practiced during the train robbery investigation. Pinkerton himself also went to Baltimore to investigate, posing as a stockbroker.

Collectively, the Pinkerton agents assembled a portrait of conspirators who were planning to intercept Lincoln as he changed trains in the city. The plan had been concocted by one Cypriano Ferrandini, who transferred his love of Italian revolution to the Southern cause. The idea was that a mob would surround Lincoln while others created a distraction to draw police away from the scene. Beforehand, the secessionists would draw ballots to determine who would shoot Lincoln dead. (In fact, several men drew the fatal red ballot in a dark room, fulfilling Ferrandini’s desire to have several would-be assassins hunting for Lincoln during the stopover.)

Lincoln, when he was debriefed on the plot, was reticent to change his touring plans. Eventually, though, he relented. Pinkerton formulated a scheme, one that involved bringing Lincoln to Baltimore in advance of his expected arrival and cutting off telegram lines so his would-be assassins couldn’t be easily tipped off. Covering Lincoln in a shawl and declaring him frail, Warne, Pinkerton, and two others—Pinkerton lieutenant George Bangs and Lincoln's friend Ward Lamon—got him on board the train in Philadelphia without incident.

As they traveled through the night, Warne gripped a pistol she carried, wondering if Lincoln’s rivals would force her to use it.

When they got to Baltimore, Warne, no longer needed to pose as a sibling, departed. Thanks to a noise ordinance, the sleeper car had to be unhitched from the train and carried by horse through the city until it reached the station with the Washington-bound train. Once there, the men spent a few nervous hours inside their sleeper car waiting for the connecting train. But Lincoln stayed unnoticed. The president-elect went on to his eventual destination of Washington, safe for the moment.

The next day, Lincoln asked the agents to visit him so he could thank them, including Warne, for protecting him. “I am sensible, ma’am, of having put you in some inconvenience—not to speak of placing you in danger,” he told her.

Warne continued to work for Pinkerton through the Civil War, sometimes posing with Allan Pinkerton as a couple. Pinkerton himself was appointed head of the Union Intelligence Service, the forerunner of the Secret Service, and gathered information during the Civil War. Warne eventually became superintendent of the agency’s bureau for women, training a growing number of female detectives.

Unfortunately, she wouldn’t live to see the ranks continue to expand. Warne died in 1868 at the age of 35 (or perhaps 38) of pneumonia. It’s a testament to her mysterious background that she wasn't delivered back to family, if indeed Pinkerton knew of any. Instead, she was buried in Pinkerton’s family plot in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Today, her headstone is worn to the point that it reads “Kate Warn.” If time winds up taking more of her name from her final resting place, there’s little doubt that history will remember it in full.

Additional Sources: The Spy of the Rebellion.

Kitty O'Neil, Trailblazing Speed Racer and Wonder Woman's Stunt Double

PHOTO COLLAGE BY DAMON AMATO, MINUTE MEDIA. MOTORCYCLE/CAR/DIVINGBOARD, ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES. PORTRAIT, MIDCO SPORTS MAGAZINE // YOUTUBE
PHOTO COLLAGE BY DAMON AMATO, MINUTE MEDIA. MOTORCYCLE/CAR/DIVINGBOARD, ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES. PORTRAIT, MIDCO SPORTS MAGAZINE // YOUTUBE

Kitty O’Neil could do it all. A stuntwoman, drag racer, and diver, the legendary daredevil's skills were once described by the Chicago Tribune as “full and partial engulfment in fire; swimming; diving; water skiing; scuba diving; horse falls, jumps, drags, and transfers; high falls into an air bag or water; car rolls; cannon-fired car driving; motorcycle racing; speed, drag, sail, and power boat handling; fight routines; gymnastics; snow skiing; jet skiing; sky diving; ice skating; golf; tennis; track and field; 10-speed bike racing; and hang gliding.”

During her lifetime, O’Neil set 22 speed records on both the land and sea—including the women’s land speed record of 512 mph, which remains unmatched to this day. Through it all, she battled casual sexism and ableism, as she was often not only the lone woman in the room, but the lone deaf person on the drag strip or movie set.

"It Wasn't Scary Enough for Me"

O’Neil was born on March 24, 1946, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Her father, John, was an Air Force pilot and oil driller, while her mother, Patsy, was a homemaker. When she was just a few months old, O’Neil contracted mumps, measles, and smallpox, an onslaught of illness that damaged her nerves and caused her to lose her hearing. Patsy, who had packed her in ice during the worst of the fever, went back to school for speech pathology so she could teach her daughter how to read lips and form words. She placed the young girl’s hand on her throat as she spoke, allowing her to feel the vibrations of her vocal cords.

Feeling those sensations helped Kitty learn to talk, while the sensations associated with engines would teach her something else. At the age of 4, O’Neil convinced her father to let her ride atop the lawn mower in what would be a transformative experience. “I could feel the vibrations,” she told the Associated Press. “That’s what got me into racing. When I race, I feel the vibrations.”

But racing wasn’t her first thrill ride. As a teenager, O’Neil showed such an aptitude for diving that Patsy decided to move the family to Anaheim, California, where O’Neil could train with the two-time Olympic gold medalist Sammy Lee. She was on her way to the qualifying rounds for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when she broke her wrist, eliminating her from consideration. Soon after, she contracted spinal meningitis. Her doctors worried she wouldn’t walk again.

She recovered, but found she was no longer interested in diving. “I gave it up because it wasn’t scary enough for me,” she told the Chicago Tribune.

Motorcycle racing proved to be a better adrenaline rush, so she began entering competitions along the West Coast. It was at one of those races that she met another speedster named Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton, who offered his assistance after O’Neil crashed her bike, severing two fingers. Once she had gotten stitched up, the pair began a professional and romantic relationship. O’Neil moved onto a 40-acre ranch in Fillmore, California, with Hambleton and his two children from a previous relationship.

Hambleton would act as O’Neil’s manager, often speaking to the press for her after stunts or record attempts. However, O’Neil later alleged that he stole money from her and physically abused her during their partnership. In 1988, a Star Tribune reporter would describe O’Neil’s scrapbooks as containing a photo of Hambleton with his face scratched out; she had also written “not true” in the margins of newspaper clippings touting his profound impact on her success.

The Need for Speed

O’Neil wanted to go fast and she didn’t care how. So she expanded her scope beyond motorcycles, setting a new women’s water skiing record in 1970 with a speed of 104.85 mph. Her national breakout arrived six years later, when she drove a skinny three-wheel rocket car into the Alvord Desert. The hydrogen peroxide-powered vehicle was dubbed “The Motivator,” and it was the work of William Fredrick, a designer who normally created cars for movie and TV stunts. When O’Neil got behind the wheel of The Motivator, she quickly smashed the women’s land speed record. Her average speed was 512 mph, over 1.5 times faster than the previous 321 mph record held by Lee Breedlove since 1965.

She believed she could beat the men’s record of 631.4 mph, too, which should’ve been great news for her entire team. Fredrick and his corporate sponsors were gunning for a new record, and O'Neil had already reportedly hit a maximum speed of 618 mph in her initial run. But before she could take The Motivator for a second spin, she was ordered out of the car.

As O’Neil would discover, she had only been contracted to beat the women’s record. Marvin Glass & Associates, the toy company that owned the rights to the vehicle, wanted Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham to break the men’s record. The company claimed it was purely a business decision, as they had a Needham action figure in the works. But according to Hambleton, the company reps had said it would be “unbecoming and degrading for a woman to set a land speed record.”

“It really hurts,” O’Neil told UPI reporters as she choked back tears. “I wanted to do it again. I had a good feeling.” She earned the immediate support of the men’s record holder, Gary Gabelich, who called the whole incident “ridiculous” and “kind of silly.” She and Hambleton tried to sue for her right to another attempt, but she wouldn’t get a second ride in The Motivator. Needham wouldn’t break the record, either, as a storm dampened his chances. Not that he was especially polite about it.

“Hell, you’re not talking about sports when you’re talking about land speed records,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “It doesn’t take any God-given talent … even a good, smart chimpanzee could probably do it. Probably better—because he wouldn’t be worried about dying.”

As the messy legal battle dragged on, O’Neil focused on her budding career in stunt work. According to The New York Times, she completed her first stunt in March of 1976, when she zipped up a flame-resistant Nomex suit and let someone set her on fire. For her second job, she rolled a car, which was practically a personal hobby. (She liked to tell people she rolled her mother’s car when she was 16, the day she got her driver’s license.) O’Neil eventually became Lynda Carter’s stunt double on Wonder Woman, where she famously leapt 127 feet off a hotel roof onto an air bag below. “If I hadn’t hit the center of the bag, I probably would have been killed,” she told The Washington Post in 1979.

Her work earned her a place in Stunts Unlimited, the selective trade group that had, until that point, only admitted men. O’Neil continued racking up credits with gigs on The Bionic Woman, Smokey and the Bandit II, and The Blues Brothers. Although few stunt doubles achieve name recognition, O’Neil was a media darling who inspired her own 1979 TV movie starring Stockard Channing and a Barbie in her trademark yellow jumpsuit.

A Pioneer's Legacy

But by 1982, feeling burned out after watching the toll the work had taken on colleagues, O'Neil decided she was finished. She retired from the business at the age of 36, packing up and leaving Los Angeles entirely. She wound up in Minneapolis and then in Eureka, South Dakota, a town with a population of fewer than 1000 people. She would live out the rest of her days there, eventually dying of pneumonia in 2018 at the age of 72.

O’Neil lived her life as a never-ending challenge—to go faster, jump higher, do better. She always said that her lack of hearing helped her concentrate, eliminating any fear she might’ve felt over the prospect of breaking the sound barrier, let alone self-immolation.

“When I was 18, I was told I couldn’t get a job because I was deaf,” she told a group of deaf students at the Holy Trinity School in Chicago. “But I said someday I’m going to be famous in sports, to show them I can do anything.”

O’Neil did exactly that. Over her the course of perilous career, she carved out a name for herself in a space that was often openly hostile towards her, setting records and making it impossible for anyone who doubted her to catch up.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER