A Daring Head For Business

“FIRE ‘em.”

These were the words of American business magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller to Madam C.J. Walker when the sales agents of her hair pressing oil Glossine, went on strike.

But she didn’t dismiss them ‘cos her sole purpose was to empower coloured women like herself. She continued providing employment to her African American sales agents who were too often “dismissed, undermined, ignored, stepped over, beaten, or even worse, lynched”.

She was a female activist ahead of her time.

She was initially poverty stricken and barely survived as a laundress. Due to poor hygiene, she suffered severe hair loss.

The turning point came when she discovered the miracle hair grower of African-American entrepreneur Annie Malone. She grew back her full head of healthy hair — and confidence —promptly. 

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Borrowing Malone’s formula, she began selling her own hair care products. Through sheer tenacity, the Guinness Book of World Records affirmed her meteoric reputation as the first self-made female millionaire in America in the early 1900s.

Born Sarah Breedlove, in 1867, she took on the name of her third husband Charles Joseph Walker. They lived at a time when racism was at its height in the USA.

She had great business acumen but what’s remarkable about this woman is that she parlayed her wealth and influence for a cause surpassing most men of her generation. In 1917, she was part of the executive committee of the New York Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This enabled the Silent Protest Parade on 28 July 1917 that drew more than 10,000 African Americans in a demonstration against the East Saint Louis killing of 39 “black” voiceless people. 

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Walker also pledged USD5,000 (equivalent to almost USD112,000 today) to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund.

Before her death in 1919 of kidney failure and other complications due to hypertension, Walker envisioned a legacy that would put coloured women on the world map.

She is survived by her great-great granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles who keeps this light of an impossible dream cemented firmly via www.madamcjwalker.com.

Self-Made, a fictional 4-part Netflix series is inspired by A’Lelia’s non-fiction biography, On Her Own Ground, about the life of Madam C.J. Walker.

In 2021, perhaps the likes of Rihanna and Beyoncé owe a bow of gratitude to the mettle of a woman for her guardianship over coloured women. Even Kanye West if we trace back to a hundred years ago, wouldn’t perchance enjoy the privileged recognition as a revered rapper had an uneducated yet grit worthy woman not fought for the rights of her fellow men and women. 

As an unsung hero, Walker continues to wield influence, and has been prominent on the Internet, and consequently her products are slated to launch online at Sephora soon enough. 


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