Where is Today’s Madam C.J. Walker?

Julianne Malveaux | 3/1/2016, 9:48 p.m. | Updated on 3/1/2016, 9:48 p.m.
Women entrepreneurs have a powerful role model when they consider Madam C.J. Walker. One of our nation’s first female self-made ...

Women entrepreneurs have a powerful role model when they consider Madam C.J. Walker. One of our nation’s first female self-made millionaires, her story of combining herbs to develop and manufacture a hair pomade, of empowering tens of thousands of women as sales agents for her products, and of establishing a beauty school to teach beauty techniques (and provide economic empowerment for even more women) are the stuff of legend. She was not only an entrepreneur, but also a philanthropist. She “lived large,” owning two cars and a sprawling estate, Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York, but she shared her wealth (Black millionaire Harold Doley purchased Villa Lewaro in 1993. It is a National Historic Landmark). She was possessed with an amazing self-confidence that served her well in business and in life.

Madam (as she is called by her great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, the keeper of the family history and author of books about her ancestor (On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker), Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur (Chelsea House, 1991; revised 2008), Madam Walker Theatre Center: An Indianapolis Treasure (Arcadia Publishing, 2013)), was a character! She changed her name from Sarah Breedlove to Madam C.J. Walker to provide herself with a “classier” sounding name, and to help prevent white people from calling her “Aunt”, as they called so many African American women. She didn’t want whites calling her the demeaning “Aunt” (to close to Mammy, for my thinking), nor did she want the patronizing attitudes of Black men to affect the way she went about her business. For years, she sought the opportunity to speak at Booker T. Washington’s National Business League, but was denied. As legend goes, she went to one of the meetings and took the mic and made her speech, despite official denial. Why should she not have spoken? She was one of the most successful business people of her generation. She was one of the most generous philanthropists. She financially sponsored the anti-lynching campaign. Perhaps Booker T. Washington was being a sexist, or perhaps (it is sometimes said) he had an ideological opposition to a woman whose product was perceived as straightening hair. By the way, Walker did not invent the straightening comb. Annie Malone, who preceded Madam Walker in making her fortune with beauty products and a beauty school that Walker attended, invented the straightening comb.

Whether Washington wanted Madam Walker to speak, she had the audacity to take the mic and say her piece. She noted that she had promoted herself from a washerwoman to a businesswoman, speaking to the fact that few were available to help her to achieve her goals and the goals of tens of thousands of other women. Her audacity, her self-possession, her activism were notable during a time when few women, regardless of race, promoted themselves, instead choosing to walk softly and speak quietly. Today, women like Cathy Liggons Hughes (TV/Radio One), Sheila Johnson (co-founder of BET), and Oprah Winfrey stand on her shoulders.