The True Story of Madam Walker, the Pioneering Millionaire Behind Netflix’s Next Big Show
Self-made beauty mogul, feminist entrepreneur, activist and philanthropist: It’s an impressive hybrid today, but one nearly impossible to fathom in the early 1900s, when Madam C.J. Walker (née Sarah Breedlove), the daughter of formerly enslaved parents, amassed her fortune by developing and selling hair products to other black women.
“She lived in a reality that I can’t even imagine. She was one generation away from slavery, had only three months of schooling and founded a company that employed 20,000 agents,” says Judith B. Thomas, president of the Madam Walker Legacy Center in Indianapolis, where Walker built her eponymous beauty business in 1910. “That kind of drive, even now, would be amazing. But to think that it came from a woman whose parents were slaves, who was born into poverty and who had worked as a washer woman.”
Walker’s unlikely story is the apotheosis of ingenuity and resilience. Born on a Louisiana cotton plantation in 1867, she was orphaned at 7, married at 14 and widowed at 20. When Walker died at just 51 years old, she had become a formidable philanthropist and built a fortune equivalent to approximately $8 million in today’s dollars, according to historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“She’s one of these figures who looms large, but is often relegated to ‘black history.’ But black history is of course American history,” says Amherst professor and artist Sonya Clark, whose 2013 portrait of Walker, rendered in 3,840 combs, dominates a wall at Indianapolis’ Alexander Hotel.
Long known in Indianapolis and in Harlem, where she also lived, and recognized with a United States postage stamp in 1998, Walker is now on the cusp of gaining greater acclaim. On March 20, Netflix debuts its four-part series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, starring Octavia Spencer. Indianapolis’ Madam Walker Legacy Center, fresh from a $15 million renovation, will have its grand opening in June, and nearby, the Indiana Historical Society’s new exhibit, You Are There 1915: Madam C.J. Walker, Empowering Women, runs through January 2021. Sephora carries a dozen Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture products, launched there in 2016 after the brand was acquired by Unilever subsidiary Sundial Brands.
A pioneer in marketing and a savvy saleswoman, Walker founded her business in Pittsburgh but moved it to Indianapolis to take advantage of the city’s bustling black businesses, its extensive train routes and its thriving newspapers, in which she was a major advertiser.
“If she was that progressive a hundred years ago, imagine what she would be doing from a marketing standpoint with Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok and Snapchat,” Thomas says. “Think about how she knew to build her distribution. What concept would she have now? Maybe she would have created Amazon. She was on her way to doing that. It wasn’t like she had a store. She used people as her social network to get her product out instead of having overhead.”
Walker’s accomplishments have long inspired artist Clark.
“She was such a force. She died before any woman could vote, but because she had capital, and therefore had power, she was sitting at the table with white men,” says Clark. “Using black combs is very intentional, because I associate them with straight hair and white men. The combs are stamped with the word ‘unbreakable,’ but they are in fact broken, to speak about breaking boundaries.”
The Blanton Museum of Art in Austin displays Clark’s other comb portrait of Madam Walker, and Clark recalls meeting a group of black men, all engineers, who helped the museum buy the work.
“One of the gentlemen said to me, ‘Madam C. J. Walker was a chemical engineer,’ and of course, that is what she was doing. I love that reframing, the additional language around her identity and her contributions,” Clark says.
Walker, who initially developed the products to combat her own hair loss, also had an unerring sense of her customers’ desires. She used her own likeness on all of her packaging and advertising, an innovation that spurred multiple copies.
“If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Walker had the Mona Lisa of black beauty brands,” Gates Jr. wrote in his revised 2017 edition of the book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, originally published in 1934.
Her style was copied, but her dedication to empowerment and activism were singular, and inspired the thousands of women whom she trained as “Walker hair culturalists.” Traveling throughout the United States and the Caribbean, Walker urged women to become self-sufficient, printing brochures with the slogan “open your own shop; secure prosperity and freedom.”
That message resonated with Jimmie Luton, a remarkably lucid 102 year-old Indianapolis native who worked as a beautician after graduating from Walker’s advanced course in 1961. Speaking by phone, Luton says she still “bubbles over” thinking about Walker’s legacy.
“One of the influences to me was to know of a black woman who was able to succeed the way that she did. Anybody that can take roots, herbs and oils and build an empire is really something,” Luton says. “Her school taught me everything: facials, manicures and permanents. We got the whole nine yards.”
Still, Luton notes, despite Walker’s seeming indomitability, she and her employees lived in a starkly racist environment.
“It’s better now, but when I was coming along, we couldn’t sit at the counters to eat and things like that. I don’t know what the white people thought about us. We could cook their food, but we couldn’t sit at their counter,” she recalls. “At the theaters you had to sit in the balcony, and that kind of junk.”
That discrimination spurred both Walker’s philanthropy and her activism, Thomas says. Walker was fearless, petitioning president Woodrow Wilson after marching in the 1917 Silent Parade, during which 10,000 African Americans walked silently down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to protest lynching.
“Think about how dangerous it was to go against the KKK or the president, Woodrow Wilson, who was a known racist, and to write letters and to march against what was going on,” Thomas says. “Think about the fact that as a woman, she wasn’t allowed to vote. She paid taxes and had no representation, and that didn’t sit with her lightly.”
Walker also had to confront other leaders within the nascent civil rights movement.
“She had conflicts with men, including Booker T. Washington. She had to fight, even in her own race, men who didn’t think she should have a voice against lynching,” Thomas says. “They felt women should stay home and take care of the kids.”
Despite being discouraged, Walker insisted on speaking at the National Negro Business League’s 1912 conference.
“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 kitchen and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground,” she said at the meeting, adding, “I love to use a part of what I make in trying to help others.”
In Indianapolis, that help took the form of a YMCA for black residents, which she helped build.
After she was charged more than white patrons to attend a performance at the city’s Isis Theater in 1914, Walker commissioned the Walker Theater as a refuge for the city’s black community. The Art Deco-style building, studded with references to Egypt and Africa, opened in 1927, eight years after Walker’s death. A flatiron-style building that fast became an Indianapolis icon, it contained the company’s headquarters, as well as a theater, a ballroom, professional offices, restaurants and a drug store.
“The Walker Building was used for everything,” Luton recalls. “There was even a coffee shop, called the Teapot, that I loved.”
Walker’s influence extended beyond Indianapolis. In Harlem, where she and her daughter A’lelia moved in the 1910s, Walker ran a beauty salon and training school on the ground floor of their townhouse. The women were patrons of the Harlem Renaissance and the elder Walker built a Hudson River estate, Villa Lewaro, which was a hub of the black intelligentsia. She also supported the Tuskegee Institute, the NAACP, Indianapolis’ Flanner House and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and a number of educational institutions.
In her will, Walker bequeathed nearly $100,000 to orphanages, institutions and individuals, and stipulated that two-thirds of her estate’s future net profits be directed to charity.
That legacy, Thomas says, is both inspiring and daunting.
“I constantly say to myself, ‘What would Madam Walker do?’ It’s major pressure,” says Thomas, whose ambitious plans for the newly renovated center span artistic and cultural programming to entrepreneurial and philanthropic training and discussions of current events.
“To be a leader like Madam was, and to help people empower themselves, that’s what the programming’s all about,” Thomas says. “If we can look in a few years and say we’ve helped increase black business, that we’ve been a place where the African American community can meet and discuss strategy, that’s what the Walker Center should be about.”