Sarah was born free, while the rest of her siblings were born on the other side of emancipation.
But by the age of seven, she was an orphan working in the same cotton fields as her mother.
Sarah married at 14 to get away from her harsh brother-in-home, the law’s and she and Moses McWilliams had one daughter, Lelia (later “A’Lelia Walker”), before Moses unexpectedly died.
Sarah headed north to St. Louis, where a number of her brothers had set up shop as barbers after leaving the Delta as “Exodusters” a few years ago.
Sarah battled to send Lelia to school while attending the A.M.E. church, where she networked with other city dwellers, including those in the burgeoning National Association of Colored Women while living on $1.50 a day as a laundress and cook.
Sarah tried to marry again in 1894, but her second husband, John Davis, was untrustworthy and disloyal.
Her life was anything but certain at 35. “I was at my tubs one morning with a heavy wash before me,” she later told the New York Times. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds, I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”
Sarah’s problems were made worse by the fact that she was losing her hair.
A’Lelia Bundles, her great-granddaughter, explains in an essay on America.gov’s Archive: “During the early 1900s when most Americans lacked indoor plumbing and electricity, bathing was a luxury. As a result, Sarah and many other women were going bald because they washed their hair so infrequently, leaving it vulnerable to environmental hazards such as pollution, bacteria and lice.”
Sarah’s personal and professional fortunes began to turn in the run-up to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis when she encountered Annie Turnbo (later Malone), an Illinois native with a background in chemistry who’d relocated her hair-straightening business to St. Louis.
It was a huge success, and Sarah went from utilizing Turnbo’s products to selling them as a local agent within a year.
Perhaps not coincidentally, she began dating Charles Joseph (“C.J.”) Walker, a clever salesperson for the St. Louis Clarion, about the same time.
Sarah moved to Denver in 1905, while still a Turnbo agent, to be closer to her sister-in-family law’s (apparently, she’d heard black women’s hair suffered in the high yet dry air of the Rocky Mountains). C.J. soon followed, and in 1906 the two made it official — marriage No. 3 and a new business start — with Sarah officially changing her name to “Madam C.J. Walker.”
Around the same time, she awoke from a dream, in which, in her words: “A big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedies were grown in Africa, but I sent for it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.” It was to be called “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” Her initial investment: $1.25.
Most importantly, Madam Walker turned her clients into evangelistic agents who, in exchange for a hefty fee, increased her potential to reach new markets while providing them with opportunities to rise out of poverty, much like Turnbo had done for her.
Walker’s organization has trained 40,000 “Walker Agents” in a short period of time at an ever-growing number of hair-culture schools she built or formed through existing established black institutions.
And they had to master the entire “Walker System,” which included everything from vegetable shampoos to cold treatments, witch hazel, diets, and those infamous hot combs.
Madam Walker did not invent the hot comb, contrary to popular belief.
According to A’Lelia Bundles’ biography of Walker in Black Women in America, a Frenchman named Marcel Grateau popularized the hair-straightening styling tool in Europe in the 1870s, and Sears and Bloomingdale’s even featured it in their catalogues in the 1880s.
However, Walker improved the hot comb by adding bigger teeth, and sales soared as a result of its popularity.
Walker was constructing a massive social network of consumer-agents connected by their desires of looking — and so feeling — different, from the heartland of America to the Caribbean and parts of Central America, all while carefully positioning herself as a “hair culturalist.”
Walker was the Mona Lisa of black-beauty brands if imitation is the highest form of flattery.
The white-owned “Madam Mamie Hightower” enterprise was one of the most absurd knockoffs.
Walker insisted on a customized seal with her likeness on every delivery to keep others at bay.
Walker was so successful in establishing her presence in the minds of consumers so rapidly that when she married C.J.
When their marriage ended in 1912, she insisted on preserving his name.
After all, she was the one who had made it more famous.
Walker organized her agents into a national group and offered monetary incentives to those who advocated her values.
In 1917, she founded the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association in the same way. “I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself,” Walker said in 1914. “I am endeavouring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.” And for her it wasn’t just about to pay; Walker wanted to train her fellow black women to be refined. As she explained in her 1915 manual, Hints to Agents, “Open your windows — air it well … Keep your teeth clean in order that [your] breath might be sweet … See that your fingernails are kept clean, as that is a mark of refinement.”