As you may know, February is Black History Month. To honor
this month, I thought I’d share with you one of my favorite industry success
One of the most notable success stories of the cosmetology
industry, if not American history in general, is that of Madam C. J. Walker.
Madam Walker was the daughter of former slaves and transformed herself from an
uneducated washerwoman into one of the twentieth century’s most successful
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, Madam Walker was orphaned at
the age of seven and went to work in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. To escape an abusive brother-in-law with whom
she was living, Sarah got married at the age of 14, became a mother at 17, and
was widowed by the age of 20. She went
to St. Louis to join her four brothers who were working as barbers. She managed to create a living and find the
funds necessary to educate her daughter.
During the 1890’s Sarah suffered from a scalp condition and
began to lose her hair. She started to
experiment with store-bought products and homemade remedies.
In 1906, Sarah married her third husband, C. J. Walker and
became known as Madam C. J. Walker. She
began to sell her scalp conditioning and healing treatment, “Madam Walker’s
Wonderful Hair Grower,” the formula for which came to her in a dream, she
always claimed. Devising sophisticated
sales and marketing strategies, she traveled extensively throughout the South
and Southeast, giving product demonstrations door-to-door, and in church
basements and lodges.
In 1910, she moved her company to Indianapolis where she
built a factory, hair salon, and training school. As she developed new products, her empire
grew. She acquired a townhouse in Harlem
that was regarded as one of the most fabulous private residences in all of New
York. She also devoted much time and
money to a variety of causes including the NAACP and the YMCA in Indianapolis
and lobbied in Washington for antilynching legislation.
In 1917, she organized a convention for her Madam C. J.
Walker Hair Culturists Union of America.
This was one of the first national meetings for businesswomen ever held.
By the time of her death, she had established herself as a
pioneer of the modern black hair care and cosmetics industry. She always traced her success to tenacity and
perseverance, to faith in herself and God, to the quality of her products, and
to her honesty in business dealings.
“There is no royal flower-strewn path to success” she commented. “If I
have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work
In 1998 the U.S. Postal Service issued the Madam C. J.
Walker commemorative stamp, the 21st in the Black Heritage Series.
If you would like to know more about the life of Madam Walker,
you can read On Her Own Ground: The Life
and Times of Madam C. J. Walker by A’Lelia Bundles (Scribner, 2001). Additionally, there is an 8-episode Netflix
series in the works starring Octavia Spencer.
Lisha Barnes is a Cosmetology/Barber Instructor with over 25 years of experience. She started out in a small private school working in Admissions, Financial Aid, Education, and School Director. She was a Director of Education for a chain of Private Cosmetology schools. Currently she serves as the Academic Development Manager for Milady where she supports schools and educators around the nation with continuing education, curriculum development and product knowledge. Lisha has served as an Educator for Milady’s Career Institute; NACCAS Commission; Career Educators of America Committee Member; and has authored numerous writing projects for Milady. This industry experience allows her to see the industry from a variety of viewpoints, which helps in sharing information and ideas with educators all around the world.