Woman’s History Month– Mme. C.J. Walker

Mme CJ WalkerIf  you never heard of Mme C.J. Walker, I’m so glad  I can be the one to introduce you to this amazing woman. If you  already know  of her life and accomplishments, then you share my  respect and and interest in this remarkable American.

Mme. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, the fifth child of recently freed slaves.  She became an orphan at age 7 and picked cotton and did housework  just to stay alive.  By 1885, a widow with two children,she started working  in the barbershops owned by her brothers. And as fate would have it, it was a damaging  hair product that changed her life and the lives of countless  generations of women.  A harsh shampoo with lye  had burned her scalp, causing distressing bald  patches.   To deal with the hair loss, she began to  develop homemade mixtures that worked much better than commercial  products. Her efforts were soon  aided by her second husband, Charles J Walker, an advertising  man  who created  successful campaigns for  his wife.

Traditional hair care products of the time  used caustic lye which  burned the scalp and often triggered breakage and  hair  loss.  Mme Walker used gentle pomades to cleanse and style naturally curly hair.  By 1906, she had become a national brand with beauty salons, retail distribution and a healthy mail order business.  For most beauty titans this type of success and recognition would have been enough– but not for Mme Walker.  She used her position  to create an industry where other women of color  could start their own beauty  business.  And while she trained a new generation in both beauty and business, she urged her students   to also reach out with charity and  political activism.

Around the turn of the century Mme Walker opened a college for hair care, a factory, a chain of nationwide hair salons, a beauty school and a laboratory. In 1917, she hired the first  licensed black architect in New York State to build her a villa in New York State and supported the  anti-lynching campaigns of the NAACP.  When she died at age 51, she was considered the wealthiest African American women in the US.   But more than just creating wealth, she  developed and supported a new industry that provided  jobs and  income to women of color.

Several years ago I read that Oprah Winfrey  bought the movie rights  of a new biography of Mme Walker.   Its been awhile and I hope that  she is still serious  about bringing  this important story    to a theater near me.    And I have  just two words of advice to Ms Winfrey– Viola Davis.

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