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.
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.
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.