If you’ve never heard of Madam C.J. Walker, you’ve missed a story of one of the titans of industry. The former Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867 and rose from the plantations of Louisiana and built her own hair care business, with products designed for black women, through sheer hard work and tenacity.
At a time when black citizens were kept in poverty through violent intimidation and segregation, Walker’s success was built on the strength of social networks, word-of-mouth testimonials, and products designed for an acutely underserved population. In many ways, Madam Walker’s story is a classic rags-to-riches tale, wherein a poor orphaned girl pulls herself up through sheer determination and willpower, forming a business that becomes an industry giant and the envy of others. But Walker’s story is also one of repeated frustration—that her various husbands took more from her than they gave in return; that her accomplishments were challenged or overlooked by others in the black community; that she barely lived long enough to enjoy her hard-earned prosperity.
Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, wrote her biography, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. She talked to Collectors Weekly about Madam Walker and her unusual rise to wealth and fame.
(Image credit: ©Madam Walker Family Archives/A’Lelia Bundles)