At the beginning of the 20th century when entrepreneur and icon Madam C.J. Walker was looking for a city to grow her business of specialty hair care products for African Americans, she looked no further than the Crossroads of America and set up shop in Indianapolis. Walker’s savvy business and leadership skills earned her status as the country’s first self-made female millionaire and transformed the beauty industry forever. The historic Walker Theatre and Madam Walker Legacy Center honor her story.
As Netflix’s new series chronicles her life, with Octavia Spencer as the lead and LeBron James behind the production, the renovated landmark theatre reopens to the public, and national media attention pays tribute to her legacy, now is the perfect time to explore Walker’s legacy in Indy.
In celebration of Women's History Month and the upcoming Netflix limited series "Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker," premiering on March 20, get to know Indy icon Madam C.J. Walker.
Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, in Delta, Louisiana. She was born on the plantation where her parents had been enslaved before the end of the Civil War. She was the first of her siblings to be born free.
Madam Walker suffered from a scalp ailment that caused substantial hair loss. She experimented with dozens of products and home remedies to no avail. Walker claimed the answer was revealed to her in a dream by a man who listed the ingredients she would need that ultimately became her famous “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.”
One of Madam Walker’s keys to success was her innovative marketing techniques. She was a pioneer at using black women, including herself, in her advertisements. She also included authentic “before and after” portraits to prove the product’s worth. At the time, many ads offered black women products to ‘fix’ their appearance. Walker celebrated natural black beauty in her ads which were featured extensively in black newspapers.
The company’s line of products, scalp treatments and application practices became known as “The Walker System.” This included shampoo, pomade for hair growth and conditioning, brushing and iron combs. The Walker System’s overall goal was to produce healthy and hygienic hair for her customers.
One of the most revolutionary and legendary parts of Walker’s business were her “Walker Agents.” These mostly African American women were trained on The Walker System and sales techniques at the multiple hair-culture colleges (named Lelia College after her daughter) that were set up around the country. After receiving their diploma, graduates sold Walker products for a handsome commission. Madam Walker structured her company this way because she wanted to give black women opportunities for growth, education, and a steady income for themselves and their families. Ultimately, Walker employed more than 40,000 Walker Agents around the country.
One of Walker’s famous quotes is “I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself, for I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race." This is why Walker Agents were paid a healthy sum and given opportunities for professional and personal development. In Walker’s Indianapolis factory, she made sure the factory labor workers were paid as much or more than the office workers. From her past experiences as a washerwoman, Walker knew how hard physical labor was, and wanted to pay her workers fairly for their strenuous labor.
On March 20, Netflix is premiering a limited series titled “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.” The inspiring story of Madam Walker will be told through four 45-minute episodes in which Oscar-award winning actress Octavia Spencer portrays Madam C.J. Walker. Actress Tiffany Haddish also stars, and basketball legend Lebron James is one of the series executive producers.
As Madam Walker’s products grew in popularity, many knock-off and copy-cat brands began entering the market. In response, Madam Walker required that a special seal of her likeness be placed on every package so consumer’s could be sure they were buying the authentic product.
In 1913, Madam Walker made the largest monetary donation by an African American toward the construction of an Indianapolis YMCA. This gift is considered to be her first opportunity for public philanthropy that began the legacy of her generous reputation. The Indianapolis Freeman proclaimed her the "first colored woman in United States history to give $1,000 to a colored YMCA building."
Madam Walker is as well known for her achievements as she is for her philanthropic activities. She was physically and financially involved in countless causes and organizations. As she herself was uneducated, Walker prioritized supporting black education by giving to African American educational institutions. She was heavily involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Conference on Lynching. So important were her contributions to the NAACP that the organization later credited Walker’s direct and estate gifts as helping it survive throughout the Great Depression.
In 1918 Madam Walker built a mansion designed by African American architect Vertner Tandy. Situated in the affluent Irvington-on-Hudson area in the Hudson Valley, she called it Villa Lewaro and was neighbors with America’s wealthiest elites, including the Rockefeller’s. She was quoted as saying she built the mansion to "convince members of [my] race of the wealth of business possibilities within the race, to point to young Negroes what a lone woman accomplished and to inspire them to do big things." It became a gathering place for many notable people involved in the Harlem Renaissance and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
In 1988 a stamp of Madam Walker was issued by the United States Postal Service as a part of its “Black Heritage” series.
Sundial Brands, a manufacturer of skincare and hair care products for people of color, launched a new hair care line called the "Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture" in 2016. It is sold exclusively at Sephora. The CEO of Sundial Brands, Richelieu Dennis, was quoted saying “The story means so much to so many,” Dennis said. “And I felt it wasn’t right that the most relevant and cultural icon of beauty and the beauty business, and the representation of what beauty means to our community, was not represented in the same way as Estée Lauder and Coco Chanel. It’s not like we don’t have that [Walker] legacy to look up to.”
Madam C.J. Walker is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first self-made American woman millionaire. “Self-made” means she neither inherited her money nor married into the money.
In 1914, a ticket clerk at an Indianapolis theatre told Madam Walker that admission for African Americans was 25 cents, while it was 15 cents for white people. That day, Walker committed to building her own theatre, and not long afterward bough the lot for what is now the Madam Walker Legacy Center in Indianapolis. This building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991.
There is a popular belief that Madam Walker invented the hot comb, which is not factual. However, she is credited for popularizing the comb and improving upon the it by widening its teeth.
Always a supporter of female empowerment, the charter for Madam Walker’s company stated that only a woman could serve as president.
In 1912, Booker T. Washington organized the National Negro Business League convention in Chicago. After Washington rejected Walker’s several requests for her to speak at the conference, she took matters into her own hands on the final day of the convention. Walker rose from the audience and said “Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face, I feel that I am in a business that is a credit to the womanhood of our race” and told her rags to riches story. When the convention was held in Philadelphia the next year, Washington himself welcomed her as an official speaker.
Madam Walker is still inspiring people today. Walker’s Legacy is a global professional collective that works to promote the career advancement, skill sets and networks of multicultural women in business and women entrepreneurs. It was founded in 2009 and named in Madam C.J. Walker’s honor by Natalie Madeira Cofield, who found herself in need of female mentors and role models during the formation of her first entrepreneurial venture. Walker’s Legacy Foundation is the philanthropic arm of the organization also inspired by Madam’s philanthropic impact. Founded in 2016, Walker’s Legacy Foundation exists to provide the entrepreneurial, financial, and professional supports needed to improve economic prosperity and reduce economic inequality for multicultural women and girls, globally.
In 1913, women made up under 10 percent of the country’s licensed drivers. Yet, Madam Walker owned and drove three automobiles at the time: a Ford Model T, a Waverley electric, and a Cole Touring Car that held seven passengers.
Maeve is the Spring 2020 Communications Intern at Visit Indy. She is a senior at Butler University, studying Strategic Communication and Marketing—Go Dawgs! Originally from the western suburbs of Chicago, Maeve has loved exploring all that Indy has to offer, and considers The Circle City her home away from home. When she’s not cheering on the Dawgs in Hinkle Fieldhouse, you can find her indulging on Mass Ave, checking out the latest exhibit at the Indiana Historical Society, or strolling the Canal Walk. She’s thrilled to be working with the Visit Indy team, and is excited to join them in sharing what makes Indy so great.