Born Sarah Breedlove, the daughter of Louisiana sharecroppers, Walker was orphaned at six, married at fourteen, and widowed at twenty with a two-year-old daughter to care for. She resettled in St. Louis and went to work as a laundress. Her early years reflected patterns all too common for black women of her generation.
In 1905 Walker, who had been losing her hair, sought a treatment for the condition. The method of beauty culture she developed revolutionized black hair care. The combination of scalp preparation, application of lotions, and use of iron combs became known as the “Walker system.” She distinguished her products from the hair straighteners advocated by white cosmetic firms, arguing that her treatment was geared to the special health needs of blacks. She sold her homemade products directly to black women, using a personal approach that won her customers and eventually a fleet of loyal saleswomen.
Walker trained her “beauty culturalists” after establishing her business headquarters in Denver, with a branch in Pittsburgh managed by her daughter A’Lelia. Her second husband, Charles J. Walker, a journalist, helped promote his wife’s flourishing enterprise. Her lectures and demonstrations won thousands of customers, and in 1910 she moved her headquarters to Indianapolis. Her business employed over three thousand workers, mainly door-to-door saleswomen. Her product line of nearly twenty hair and skin items was widely advertised in the black press.
Walker, whose talent for self-promotion made her one of the best-known black Americans during the first quarter of the century, was lauded as “the first black woman millionaire in America.” Her largesse was legendary, and she spent extravagant sums on her Manhattan townhouse. When her daughter inherited the mansion in the 1920s, it became a salon for members of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also owned a luxurious country home, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington-on-Hudson, designed by black architect Vertner Tandy.
Walker was as generous as she was successful, establishing a network of clubs for her employees and offering bonuses and prizes to those who contributed to their communities through charitable works. She promoted female talent: the charter of her company provided that only a woman could serve as president. She was a standard-bearer for black self-help, funding scholarships for women at Tuskegee Institute and donating large sums to the NAACP, the black YMCA, and dozens of black charities.
Madam Walker’s plans for her headquarters, the Walker Building, were carried out after her premature death at fifty-one. The structure, completed in 1927, today is part of a historic renovation district in downtown Indianapolis.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.