If 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.