Madam C.J. Walker: Her Crusade

A black woman's hair-care empire set a style and smashed barriers

One could write a political history of African Americans based on changes in hairstyles, ranging from kinky and short to kinky and long, from greased and "pressed" (with a stocking cap) to straightened, waved or jerry-curled. But it was Madam C.J. Walker, as the historian Rayford W. Logan maintains, who "made straight hair 'good hair,'" and in doing so, made a fortune for herself and a decent standard of living for a work force of "agents" that numbered 20,000 in the U.S. and the Caribbean.

Sarah Breedlove was born on a cotton plantation near Delta, La., in 1867. Orphaned at age...

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