When American journalist A’Lelia Bundles published her first article on her great-great-grandmother, Mrs. CJ Walker in 1982, it was in the “lost women” section of a women’s magazine.
It marked a comedown for Mrs. Walker, who founded a hair care company that made her the country’s first self-taught millionaire woman – “the richest woman of color in the world, the main producer and philanthropist of her race ”, as a newspaper described when she died in 1919.
To date, Mrs. CJ Walker’s products can be purchased in stores – an unlikely legacy for a woman who has worked in poverty for decades and whose parents had been enslaved.
But “for many years, Mrs. Walker was just a little footnote in history. As a woman who made hair products, she was really on something trivial, “said Ms. Bundles, who published Ms. Walker’s first full biography,” On Her Own Ground “in 2001.
Now, however, Ms. Walker is “having a moment,” as Ms. Bundles put it in a recent blog post.
Her story can be found in some 200 books, it has been featured in several recent museum exhibitions, including The Simthsonian in Washington DC, and New York named a street in her honor last year. In March, Netflix released Self-made, a four-part series starring Octavia Spencer about her life and business, inspiring a new advertising campaign – and the reissue of Ms. Bundles’ biography.
Meanwhile, his brand was relaunched by the subsidiary of Unilever Sundial Brands, known for its SheaMoisture hair products, which bought the rights in 2013. The foundation launched by Sundial founder Richelieu Dennis also bought his mansion of 34 rooms in New York, Villa Lewaro, with the intention of transforming it into a think tank for black women entrepreneurs.
“Much of its history is unfortunately still relevant,” said Elle Johnson, one of the screenwriters for the Netflix series, to the buzz. “When I look at her life and what it has accomplished, I can’t help but be amazed. “
Born in Louisiana in 1867 under the name of Sarah Breedlove, Mrs. Walker was an orphan at the age of seven and a widowed mother at the age of 20. Her difficulties with hair loss – a common problem at the time due to infrequent washing – inspired her to start her business, the Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Co in 1906, which sold a “treatment” that included a scalp massage and a special ointment.
In 1916, she employed more than 10,000 agents and ran a network of schools that trained women to enter the hairdressing industry – one of the few ways outside of domestic work that black women could earn. money back then.
“I had little or no opportunity when I started in life … I had to make a living and my own opportunity,” she said later, according to Ms. Bundles’ biography. “But I did it. That’s why I mean to every black woman there, don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come up, but you have to get up and grab them! “
Ahead of its time
Mrs. Walker – who renamed herself after marrying her third husband, with the Madame added for branding purposes – was part of a wave of black entrepreneurs who emerged in the decades after slavery to meet the needs of a black population largely overlooked by white businesses.
This included other African American women with large hair care companies, like Annie Turnbo Malone, whose products were sold by Ms. Walker before developing her own formula. Their rivalry – which Ms. Bundles says is exaggerated for dramatic effect – is a focal point of the new Netflix series.
But Mrs. Walker – whose life also inspired an opera by Duke Ellington – remains the best known. This is in part a testament to his marketing savvy, including his willingness to brand his products with his own image – a standard fare in the age of social influencers, but a bold move when white beauty standards prevailed throughout the day.
“There are so many things we think we invented or left Harvard Business School and it’s something this woman did 100 years ago,” said Nicole Jefferson Asher, one of the show’s writers. Netflix. “It was his own innate business acumen. “
A frequent speaker, Ms. Walker also spoke on political issues such as lynching and described her company’s mission in terms of empowering women. Her obituaries recognized her for her philanthropy and her wealth.
“Today we talk a lot about social entrepreneurship and businesses with double or triple bottom line, [maximising social and environmental good as well as profits]”Said Tyrone Freeman, a professor of philanthropic studies at the University of Indiana, whose book on Ms. Walker’s charity work will be released this fall.” I see Walker doing this 100 years ago.
Asher says that Ms. Walker’s achievements have made her a “popular hero” for generations of black women – even though she was often mistakenly associated with the invention of the hot comb, a straightening iron.
But although her story of rags in wealth seems made for movies, until recently, it was difficult to get Hollywood to buy stories focused on black stars, Ms. Asher says, “Now, at a time when the economic cleavages of the United States are widening, racial and gender disparities are in the spotlight, and the power exercised by the country’s business elite, through their businesses and philanthropy, is under scrutiny, the questions raised by his story resonate.
“This is a story about female entrepreneurship and the American dream and more specifically the black American dream,” she said. “The more we learn about history over this period, it will help us get through the period we are currently struggling with. “
But Ms. Walker’s story is convincing in itself, she adds. “The example of this resilience and determination and ambition should really be an inspiration to all of us. “