Madam C.J. Walker: Her Crusade

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

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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 7, married at 14, widowed at 20, Breedlove earned a subsistence living as a laundress in St. Louis, Mo. Seeking to supplement her income--and cure her case of alopecia, or baldness, commonly suffered by black women at the time because of scalp diseases, poor diet and stress--Breedlove became an agent for Annie Turnbo Pope Malone's Poro Co., selling its "Wonderful Hair Grower." Realizing the potential of these products, Breedlove took her daughter and $1.50 in savings to Denver, married her third husband, a newspaper sales agent named Charles Joseph Walker, and with him established a hair-care business that made brilliant use of advertising in the growing number of black newspapers.

Walker had invented her own "hair growing" product, she claimed, after "a big black man appeared to me [in a dream] and told me what to mix up for my hair." Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, she would recount, "but I sent for it, mixed it up, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had even fallen out."

Walker's grooming products, she insisted, did not "straighten" hair--even then, a politically controversial process--but she also sold a "hot comb," which did in fact straighten kinky hair, consciously tapping into a racial aesthetic that favored Caucasian features over "African" physical characteristics. Such celebrities as Nat King Cole, Sugar Ray Robinson and Michael Jackson would become cases in point. Walker's products, aided by before-and-after ads that rivaled anything Madison Avenue would invent, made their way into virtually every black home.

Walker moved her business to Indianapolis in 1910, created the Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America and tirelessly traveled the U.S. giving lectures and demonstrations. Walker attracted the notice of the race's elite, despite the dubious regard in which they held hairdressers. She disrupted Booker T. Washington's National Negro Business League Convention in 1912 by demanding to be heard. "Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face," Walker shouted to Washington, who had ignored her for three days. "I have been trying to tell you what I am doing. I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted from there to the washtub. Then I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I know how to grow hair as well as I know how to grow cotton. I have built my own factory on my own ground." She got their attention.

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