The Legendary Madam C.J. Walker
February is Black History Month. As a black-owned haircare company, it is only fitting that we talk about the legendary Madam C.J. Walker.
As the first female self-made millionaire, Walker created hair care products known as the “Walker System.” Despite the erroneous claim that Walker invented the hot comb and the relaxer, her products were actually focused on scalp health and hair growth.
Here are 3 more facts you may not have known about the hair care icon:
Walker was an advocate for the economic independence of black women. She trained over 25,000 sales agents in the “Walker System,” including creating a beauty school for her “hair culturists.”
During the rise of her empire, she employed black men and women in the U.S., Central America, and the Caribbean. Her expansion included the creation of a national association, the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association, which built loyalty amongst her sales teams with cash incentives and empowered those who sold her products.
In 1914, Walker said, “I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.” The National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association, created in 1917, delivered on her vision. Walker made sure her sales agents reflected the high standard of black excellence from their training to their appearance (uniform).
Advocated for Personal Pride Not Straight Hair
"Let me correct the erroneous impression held by some that I claim to straighten hair," Walker once stated. "I deplore such an impression because I have always held myself out as a hair culturist. I grow hair."
While Walker made notable improvements to the hot comb (wider teeth), her goal was to create products that benefited black women, not change them. Walker’s focus was always on the health of women’s hair and helping them build/maintain pride in their appearance.
She was consistent with her beliefs in putting your best foot forward which can be seen in this excerpt from her sales agent 1915 manual: “Keep your teeth clean in order that [your] breath might be sweet…See that your fingernails are kept clean, as that is a mark of refinement.”
Philathanrpist and Political Activist
As the success of her business grew, Walker began supporting various causes she believed in. She donated thousands of dollars to scholarships, orphanages, black community projects, and the NAACP anti-lynching fund.
In 1917, three dozen black people were attacked and murdered in east St. Louis, Illinois. Walker along with other affluent members of the black community in Harlem petitioned a federal anti-lynching bill in response to the heinous act.
The impact of Madam C.J. Walker has extended far beyond her lifetime. Her strength, salesmanship, and empowerment of women is a legacy that continues today. It is not only in February that we honor her legacy, but also in our everyday actions as black women, entrepreneurs, and even haircare lovers.