Madam C.J. Walker: Hoosier Businesswoman

05 Feb Madam C.J. Walker: Hoosier Businesswoman

“Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”  – Madam C.J. Walker

As you may already know, 2016 marks Indiana’s Bicentennial. To celebrate 200 years of statehood, as well as Black History Month, I thought I’d highlight the life of African American businesswoman, Madam C.J. Walker.

Not a native Hoosier, Madam C.J. Walker was born, Sarah Breedlove, to sharecroppers on a cotton plantation in Louisiana in 1867. After the deaths of her parents, Walker moved to Mississippi with her sister and became a washerwoman earning just a few cents each week. Eventually, Walker moved to St. Louis, MO where educational opportunities were more readily available for her young daughter. At this time, the law stated that schools for black children and white children had to be separate. Many cities in the south had no African American schools so children, like Madam Walker, received no formal education and she wanted more for her child.

After meeting and befriending hairdresser, Annie Pope-Turnbo, Walker began selling Pope-Turnbo’s hair products door-to-door. Wanting to help other African American women with their hair problems, Madam Walker began creating her own hair treatment “Wonderful Hair Grower” from ingredients that came to her in a vivid dream. Over time, Walker expanded her line to include shampoos and scalp treatments and she traveled the country lecturing and demonstrating her products.

In 1910, Madam C.J. Walker moved her growing business to Indianapolis, IN where she opened her second training school and built the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. At her training schools, called Lelia College, Walker taught women to be “Walker Agents” and hairdressers. Through her hard work and ingenuity, Madam Walker created a beauty empire that helped thousands of African American women earn a better living and transformed Walker into one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire.

If you’d like to learn more about Madam C.J. Walker, or other famous Hoosiers, check out the Biography In Context database available through the Library’s website. The Indiana Historical Society also has a digital image collection celebrating Madam Walker.