It’s an unusual success story: Madam CJ Walker, a freed Louisiana slave born shortly after the Civil War, founded a hair care empire that made her the first self-made black millionaire in the United States (or the first woman of any race) , according to some reports). A hundred years after her death in 1919, Walker was the subject of the 2020 Netflix series Self Made with Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.
In Indianapolis, home of the headquarters of Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company, visitors can follow a self-guided walking trail to find out how Sarah Breedlove (Walker’s first name) became Madam CJ Walker, an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and celebrity. Stops include a compelling, interactive exhibit showing costumed actors portray key figures in Walker’s life, a legacy center in her former factory and headquarters, a giant mural, the church where she worshiped, and a portrait of her who – very fitting – from almost fitting 4,000 hair combs.
An exhibit at the Indiana Historical Society recreates Walker’s office on a day in 1915, based on a photograph in the Society’s collection. Visitors are encouraged to ask questions to actors in period costume depicting Walkers and important figures in their lives, most of whom were also black. Her attorney, Freeman B. Ransom, ran the company’s day-to-day operations for decades; Alice Kelly was her factory foreman; and George Knox was editor of The Indianapolis Freeman, the first illustrated black newspaper in the United States
Mrs. CJ Walker. | Photo: Public domain
The collection of around 11,000 Walker-related materials ranges from original hair care jars, brochures (“Open your own shop; secure prosperity and freedom,” they urge), newspaper advertisements, leaflets for national cosmetics congresses and elegant portraits. A press release from 1960 announced that the US ambassador was visiting Ghana for the company’s 60th anniversary. Walker’s personal correspondence includes her will and a passport application to Paris.
“It’s one of my favorites,” said Susan Hall Dotson, African American history coordinator for the Indiana Historical Society. “It shows the places she has traveled from Costa Rica and Haiti to Jamaica, where she sold her products by shipping them to local customs brokers.” The company’s current exhibition, You Are There 1915: Madam CJ Walker, Empowering Women, runs until April 2022.
A widow and mother
The deck appeared to be stacked against Walker from the start. Born in 1867 as the daughter of stock traders who died early, she picked cotton, became a laundress, married at the age of 14 and had a child at the age of 17. “When she was 7 years old, she was an orphan. At 20, she was a widow and mother, ”says Dotson.
To make matters worse, she also lost her hair. Her great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles wrote in an essay: “At the beginning of the 20th century, when most Americans lacked electricity and plumbing, bathing was a luxury. As a result, Sarah and many other women went bald from washing their hair so seldom. ”Overworked, often malnourished and constant stress did not help. (Bundles also authored Walker’s biography On Her Own Ground.)
When Walker moved to St. Louis, she met Annie Turnbo Malone, who invented a product to promote hair growth in black women. Walker became Malone’s sales agent, selling the product door-to-door. Walker later moved to Denver and created her own recipe. She was nearly 40 when she married Charles J. Walker, a newspaper seller, and took his name.
In February, a mural depicting Walker was unveiled at Indianapolis International Airport. | Photo courtesy Visit Indy
After moving to Pittsburgh, Walker opened a small factory and her first beauty school to train women in hair care and styling. But she decided to make Indianapolis her national headquarters and opened a large manufacturing facility on Indiana Avenue in 1910.
“Indianapolis was then known as the“ Crossroads of America, ”with a central location and easy national shipping to eastern and western states,” says Dotson. “She was warmly welcomed here, and there were many African-American owned stores on Indiana Avenue.”
A marketing genius – whose name and face graced the packaging of their many hair products, sometimes in before-and-after transformation photos – Walker pioneered the concept of personal branding and inspired customer loyalty decades before Martha Stewart and other lifestyle gurus did the same.
“Sarah was ahead of her time when it came to branding her business. Her name and picture appeared on all of their products, ”says Dotson. “She only had third grade training, but she was always learning.”
Madam CJ Walker drove three of her friends in 1911. | Photo: Public domain
Another brilliant move was naming their company “The Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company,” a majestic nickname at a time when black women were routinely called by their first name or the condescending “aunt.” Changing the name to “something more catchy and worthy was a smart career move that reflected her style and marketing flair,” wrote Nancy Koehn, a professor who teaches Walker’s story in her entrepreneurship class, in a Harvard Business School case study. Even after her husband’s divorce in 1912, Walker kept the name, knowing that her brand identity was inextricably linked with it.
In 1916, Walker moved to Harlem to be around her daughter. She later built Villa Lewaro, a columned villa in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, but kept its headquarters in Indianapolis. She employed thousands of women as sales representatives and owned several beauty schools to train black women in hair care and styling. “I’m not just content with making money for myself,” Walker said in 1914.
The Madam Walker Legacy Center, located in their former factory on Indiana Avenue, is a 10-minute walk from the historic society. The 1928 building, a National Historic Landmark completed after Walker’s death, also houses the Walker Theater. Nat King Cole, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald sang under the building’s ornate lights with African motifs.
“Walker once had to pay a ‘black tax’ in an Indianapolis theater, so she wanted a theater,” said Kristian Stricklen, the center’s president. The center plans to offer cultural and entrepreneurial programs when it reopens this fall after a major renovation was delayed by COVID-19. Walker had a house behind the factory, but like her grand Harlem residence, it has since been demolished. (Villa Lewaro is still standing, but not yet open to the public.)
A portrait of Madam CJ Walker made from 4,000 hair combs. | Photo courtesy Visit Indy
A large mural depicting Walker, her humble beginnings, products, and female employees was unveiled at Indianapolis International Airport in February. With quotes from Walker herself, local artist Tasha Beckwith was selected for the project by the Legacy Center, the Airport Authority, and the Indiana Arts Council.
Walker’s hair comb portrait of the artist Sonya Clark can be seen at The Alexander Hotel. Right behind the bar, visitors can order a “self made” cocktail (grapefruit and rose vodkas, raspberry syrup and cranberry juice) and toast the indomitable woman who has overcome poverty, hardship and discrimination to become a millionaire. with really good hair.
When you go
Entry to the Indiana Historical Society is free for teachers, medical personnel, first responders, and the military with ID.
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