From Laundress to Business Mogul

One hundred years ago this May, a white mob massacred hundreds of Black people in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The 35-square-block district had been a thriving Black business center—so much so that it became known as Black Wall Street. Black entrepreneurs, locked out of other parts of Tulsa by Jim Crow laws, ran luxury hotels, insurance companies, grocery stores, transportation services, newspapers, and theaters in the community. A wealthy Black landowner, O. W. Gurley, gave loans to residents who wanted to start their own businesses. Black prosperity begat more Black prosperity.

Madam C. J. Walker:
The Making of an American Icon
by Erica L. Ball
Rowman and Littlefield Publishers,
166 pp.

But it also led to white resentment. A false allegation that a Black man had raped a white woman activated white locals. They surged through the streets, shooting Black people on sight, looting Black homes, and bombing more than 600 Black-owned businesses. Over the course of two days, nearly the entire district was burned to the ground. 

Entrepreneurship has fueled progress for Black Americans, growing the middle class and funding the fight for racial equality. But it has also been met with waves of devastation. Black farming languished in the 20th century, in part because the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against Black farmers when assessing loan applications. The construction of the interstate system in the 1950s and ’60s wiped out Black business districts in cities across America. The federal government’s retreat from enforcing antitrust laws starting in the late 1970s led to the collapse of small Black-owned firms across the country. The Great Recession in 2008 set back another generation of Black entrepreneurs. 

Now, Black business owners are being wiped out again, this time by a virus. Black entrepreneurs disproportionately run businesses in retail or hospitality, two sectors that immediately took a hit when states implemented social distancing measures. Between February and April 2020, 40 percent of Black-owned firms closed, according to analysis from Robert Fairlie of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Seventeen percent of white-owned companies closed during the same period. 

The current struggle for Black entrepreneurship makes a new book chronicling the life of Madam C. J. Walker especially relevant. Walker, a Black woman who built a beauty product empire in the early 1900s, became one of the richest businesswomen in America. The Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company sold hair and skin products and, at its peak, employed nearly 25,000 agents to sell them throughout the Americas. 

Entrepreneurship has fueled progress for Black Americans, growing the middle class and funding the fight for racial equality. But it has also been met with waves of devastation.

The lingering question for scholars—and, more urgently, for Black entrepreneurs—is how Walker managed to do it. Her life is the subject of several biographies, academic lectures, children’s books, and even a Netflix miniseries. The most recent addition to that literature comes from Erica Ball, the department chair of Black studies at Occidental College, with Madam C. J. Walker, a deeply researched book that situates Walker’s story just one generation removed from chattel slavery, in turn-of-the-century America, when Black people sought to renegotiate their contract with society. It also illuminates her business strategies. Walker built her empire in coalition with other Black institutions and used her working-class background and her philanthropy to connect with the Black masses, not just the Black elite. What she may have lacked in pedigree, she made up for with brazen determination.

Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, a few years after the Emancipation Proclamation, in a one-room cabin on a cotton plantation in Delta, Louisiana. Both of her parents, who had been enslaved on the plantation, died before she was 10. As the Reconstruction era was ending and racial terror spiked, Sarah and her older sister moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi. She arrived without the extensive training that would have allowed her to work as a cook, and as a newcomer she lacked the referrals necessary to be a maid or a nurse for a white family. So she worked as a laundress—a position that was thought to be on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder but enabled her to develop her own client base as an independent contractor. At the age of 17 she gave birth to her daughter, Leila, and in a few more years she moved on to St. Louis, where three of her brothers lived. (Much of what is known about Sarah’s early life is sourced from the subject herself.)

In St. Louis, Sarah began suffering from severe scalp ailments, including hair loss. This was common at the time, especially among working-class Black women, who often used harsh products like lye soap on their hair. In 1903, she was introduced to Annie Pope, a Black hair care entrepreneur. She gave Sarah a treatment of her “Wonderful Hair Grower,” and it impressed Sarah enough that she became one of Pope’s sales agents. 

Soon, Sarah moved to Denver, bringing with her a charming and entrepreneurial newspaper-man named Charles J. Walker, whom she had begun dating. Perhaps, Ball speculates, Sarah saw opportunity in a market with few Black beauty professionals. She made connections quickly by joining the local African Methodist Episcopal church, securing work as a cook in a boarding house, and selling Pope’s products. She married Charles in January 1906, and within six months she had decided to become an independent beauty culturist, severing ties with Annie Pope. 

Sarah’s entry into the beauty industry came at an opportune time. For much of the 1800s, most women could only access a limited range of cosmetic products. But by the 1890s, stage actresses like Sarah Bernhardt were challenging long-held ideals of natural beauty and helping bring beauty culture into the mainstream. Soon, department stores and advertisers began targeting women as consumers. As demand rose and suppliers increased, Black women also began to embrace beauty culture. In 1893, Mary Church Terrell, a prominent Black activist, wrote in Rigwood’s Journal, a leading Black women’s publication, “Every woman, no matter what her circumstances, owes it to herself, her family, and her friends to look as well as her means will permit.” Opportunity was expanding for beauty entrepreneurs like Walker. Now 38, she started making, marketing, and selling her own product line in Denver. 

In early 1906, Sarah began referring to herself as Madam C. J. Walker. “Madam” sounded more European, and many white beauty culturists used the title in their marketing. Walker began traveling to other towns in Colorado to sell her products, and in the summer of 1906 she opened a salon in Denver. Leila, now 20, joined her mother to help expand the business. Once Leila was able to run the Denver salon on her own, Sarah and Charles set out on a seven-state tour of the Southeast. 

While traveling, Walker established several procedures and marketing strategies that would drive her success. The first was to rely heavily on local Black institutions. When she arrived in a new city, Walker would start by identifying a Black hotel or family that would take in travelers. In the Jim Crow South, this was both a practical necessity and a way to make local connections. She would also reach out to Black church and community leaders, who could introduce Walker to their constituencies. 

Her second strategy was to offer a demonstration of her hair care system to groups of local women. The demonstrations were intimate, step-by-step tutorials of the hair care process. They were also social events that drew together women who could readily identify with Walker’s life experience as a domestic worker. 

Her third strategy was to sell her own story, which made her both relatable and an aspirational figure. During the demonstrations, Walker forged trust with the audience by marketing herself as a hair “grower” and a healer of sorts, which linked her to a long tradition of Black women who served an essential function as natural healers. She would tell her listeners that when her hair began to fall out after years of working as a washerwoman, help came in the form of divine inspiration: A “big black man” or an “African” appeared in a dream and provided her with a list of ingredients, which she ordered and used to remedy her problem.

Whether it was true or not, the narrative was savvy. Many Black reformers and ministers at the time railed against the dangers of beauty culture and thought cosmetics gave credence to the misguided belief that Black women were hyper-sexual and immoral. Further, Walker’s system of hair care involved elements that could be characterized as hair straightening, a trend that was heavily criticized by reformers as an effort to imitate white people. Walker’s preferred origin story helped ameliorate those concerns.

As customers placed orders, Walker sent them back to Denver for fulfillment, where Leila mixed, packaged, and shipped the products. With a salon out west and a growing customer base in the South, Walker and her husband decided to relocate twice more, first to Pittsburgh, where she opened another salon, and then to Indianapolis. Her willingness to pick up and move, combined with her intuition about which cities had a business community and a customer base that would be receptive to her products, was key to her successful expansion. Indianapolis, for example, was a railway hub that served as a gateway to the Midwest, Northeast, and South. It had a Black population of more than 20,000 and two Black newspapers in which Walker could advertise her products. She purchased a 12-room house and soon began work on a new state-of-the-art factory steps away from her home. In 1910, Walker earned more than $260,000 annually in today’s dollars. 

Although she had agents and customers scattered across the country, her company was not yet a household name. The beauty industry was becoming a strong force in America—product offerings were growing, as was consumer spending—but there was still a strong bias against it, especially among elite Black men. Booker T. Washington, a leading intellectual and champion of Black entrepreneurship, was generally opposed to Black women’s beauty culture. Winning his backing, Walker thought, was a prerequisite for growing a national brand. 

But when she reached out to Washington repeatedly for help in expanding her business, he showed no interest. In letters, Walker pressed Washington for an invitation to a 1912 farmers’ convention that his Tuskegee Institute was hosting, and got no response—but she decided to go anyway. After petitioning conference leaders, she was given permission to speak briefly at an evening chapel service, separate from the regular activities. She also gave demonstrations and treatments to more than 80 customers, including members of Washington’s own family. Walker secured so many contacts and customers during her time at Tuskegee that she decided to open an agency near the campus. 

Her mission to win Washington’s support didn’t stop there. She attended the 1912 National Negro Business League conference in Chicago, but Washington didn’t allow her to address the assembly. When another delegate requested that Walker be allowed to speak, Washington remained firm. Walker rose to her feet and said to him, “Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face!” She gave an impromptu speech defending her occupation, telling her now-perfected washtub-to-boardroom story, and tying her business to dignity and uplift for the race. With that speech, Walker won over the audience and, finally, Washington. He invited her to speak at the following year’s conference, and agreed to be her guest during his next visit to Indianapolis. As Walker had suspected it would, Washington’s official endorsement instantly elevated her national profile. Later that year, The Freeman, a Black newspaper, published a profile of Madam C. J. Walker and the Walker Manufacturing Company, describing her as “America’s Foremost Colored Business Woman.” 

As Walker’s business empire grew, she became more involved in Black politics, always prioritizing the perspective of the working class. Their views dictated many of Walker’s branding initiatives, including her charitable giving. She made a public pledge of $1,000 toward a new “colored branch” of the YMCA in Indianapolis, a sum that put Walker in league with the wealthy white men who had initially organized the fund-raiser. Walker’s immense contribution expanded her celebrity and earned her a good deal of press, including coverage in The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. Walker also supported projects at Black colleges, and, in exchange, the schools were happy to teach the “Walker method” in their curriculums, creating a direct talent pipeline for the Walker Manufacturing Company. When non-Black companies began creeping into the Black hair care space, Walker convened Black beauty manufacturers, inviting many to her home to discuss the development, which led to the organization of the National Negro Cosmetic Manufacturers Association. Toward the end of her life, she would join the executive committee of the New York NAACP. 

By the early 1900s, Walker’s beauty product empire employed nearly 25,000 women as agents to sell hair and skin products throughout the Americas. She offered her agents dignity, flexibility, and help adjusting to working outside the domestic sphere.

Walker also offered thousands of Black women independent employment with dignity. She offered her agents flexibility, and helped them adjust to working outside the domestic sphere. She took that opportunity beyond American borders when she traveled to the Caribbean and Central America to expand her business and recruit new sales agents. By 1918, the Walker Manufacturing Company was a global enterprise, and that year Walker earned $275,000, or roughly $4.7 million in today’s dollars. By 1919, her net worth was $600,000, more than $9 million in today’s dollars. 

Unfortunately, as her empire rapidly grew, her health declined. She suffered from hypertension for years, which ultimately damaged her kidneys. On May 25, 1919, Walker died at her estate. The following Friday, Ball writes, 1,000 mourners came to her home to pay their respects, including officers from the NAACP, the National Association of Colored Women, and the National Negro Business League. 

Madam C. J. Walker would face a different set of challenges if she tried to launch her business today. One force crushing contemporary Black-owned businesses—the kind Walker relied on when growing her company—is economic consolidation. As the federal government retreated from enforcing antitrust and antimonopoly laws in the late 1970s, larger white-owned corporations began buying up successful, small Black-owned businesses. White-owned chain stores expanded, undercutting smaller Black-owned grocers and pharmacies wherever they went. Large banks acquired Black-owned community banks, replacing pillars of the Black business community with distant corporate entities who weren’t inclined to give loans to Black entrepreneurs. In its 1989 ruling in City of Richmond v. J. A. Croson Company, the Supreme Court essentially stalled any progress Black mayors had made in increasing Black entrepreneurs’ access to municipal contracts. These forces and others widened the racial wealth gap, and financial redlining compounded the problem. Black entrepreneurs trying to launch their businesses today face an extremely inhospitable landscape. 

Ball’s breadth of knowledge is abundantly clear. But writing a biography about the great Madam C. J. Walker posed some research challenges. As the author points out, scholars “rely heavily upon the tightly scripted narrative that Madam Walker created for herself as she built her business empire.” 

Ball has done a masterful job reconstructing the context in which Walker grew her company. That strength is also a liability. Rather than fueling the narrative of Walker’s life, Ball’s research on regional migration patterns and the individual personalities associated with various civic organizations generally comes across as the primary narrative. Often, the reader is left craving a return to the person of Madam Walker. 

But the book shines a light on the world Walker lived in, the structural barriers she overcame, and the barely traveled pathways she utilized to arrive at icon status. If one wishes to learn marketing strategies from a true pioneer, Ball meticulously documents Walker’s playbook—one that Black entrepreneurs would do well to read at this moment in history. If one chooses to draw inspiration from Madam Walker’s commitment to  Black institutions, Ball provides plenty of examples of it. As so many Black-owned businesses close up shop, Walker’s story is evidence that triumphant success is possible—and a reminder to support the Madam C. J. Walkers of the future.

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