the richest african american woman in america -- 2/10/20

Today's selection -- from On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A'Lelia Bundles. Madam C.J. Walker, whose real name was Sarah Breedlove, was born five years after the Emancipation Proclamation to parents who were former slaves in Delta, Louisiana. Ms. Walker built an empire in the cosmetics and beauty industry. When she died she was the wealthiest African-American businesswoman in America with a total net worth of $600,000:

"Madam Walker's death was news all over the world, from Paris's Le Figaro and La Liberté to the Chicago Defender, from the New York Herald to the Oklahoma City Black Dispatch. A widely published Associated Press article called her 'the wealthiest negro woman in the United States, if not the entire world . . . credited with having amassed a fortune of more than $1,000,000 through the sale of a "hair restorer."' The New York Times, in an edited version of the same wire story, managed to transform the words into a singular insult: 'Mrs. C. J. Walker, known as New York's wealthiest negress, having accumulated a fortune from the sale of so-called anti-kink hair tonic and from real estate investments, died yesterday.' In contrast, the St. Louis Republic's editorial --'A Negro Woman's Success' -- applauded her, as did the New York Post: 'The Negro race ... gave itself a full stamp of Americanism by producing in "Madam" Walker a woman who built up a great fortune.'

"Her highest praise, however, came from the black press in whose pages she had frequently appeared. 'She owed her success not alone to the merit of her commodity. It was far more due to her ability as an organizer, her faith as well as talent, in advertising,' wrote The A.M.E. Church Review. 'Her largest legacy is the inspiring example she has left to ambitious souls to undertake the achievement of large affairs,' wrote one observer. 'The career of this self-made woman should be an incentive and an inspiration to all members of the race,' said the New York Age, commending her for employing her 'financial success' to 'help the race on its upward stride.

"Others focused on her pioneering efforts in the modern hair care indus­try. 'It is given to few persons to transform a people in a generation. Yet this was done by the late Madam Walker,' wrote Du Bois, crediting her with improving the hygiene practices of thousands of women who otherwise would have neglected their hair. Her use of the metal hot comb -- 'the least important or necessary' part of her method, he said -- was widely misun­derstood and ridiculed. The accusation that black women were straighten­ing their hair 'in order to imitate white folk,' he continued, led her to modify her method to affect a more natural-looking texture, while still retaining the 'essential' cleaning and brushing. 'It is not too much to say that this revolutionized the personal habits and appearance of millions of human beings,' Du Bois concluded, with praise for her philanthropic gen­erosity. Nevertheless, through the next several decades Madam Walker's name became synonymous with hair straightening. Derisively dubbed the 'de-kink queen,' she had maintained until the end that she was a hair cul­turist, not a hair straightener. 'She never claimed or advertised that she could straighten hair,' [attorney Freeman Briley] Ransom told the New York Sun in an effort to correct the record soon after her death. 'That statement is all a mistake. She asserted merely that she could grow hair on any head where the roots were not dead.'

"In their final assessments, several reporters focused on her contributions to the advancement of women's rights. 'She was the herald of a new social order in which women will be independent and the oldest form of property will vanish forever,' wrote journalist George Schuyler several years later, adding that Madam Walker 'had given dignified employment to thousands of women who would otherwise have had to make their living in domestic service.'

Advertisement showing images of cold cream, and hair and complexion products.

"Many newspapers called her a millionaire, though in truth the value of her estate -- her homes, factory, office, salons, apartment buildings, real estate, furnishings, cars, diamonds and furs -- at the time of her death was probably closer to $600,000 with a large tax liability and $100,000 in out­standing bequests. But the speculation persisted, fueled by headlines and spurred by African Americans' yearning for a heroine whose financial suc­cess could rival any American rags-to-riches saga. Perhaps the primary pur­veyor of the million-dollar myth was Ransom himself: 'Madam Walker's fortune of $1,000,000 or more was built up from the wide sale of a hair restorer strictly,' he reportedly told one New York newspaper soon after her death. Accurately quoted or not, the claim attributed to him provided a welcome antidote to the perception of inferiority. Her career, the Chicago Defender proclaimed, was 'a message to the world that the Negro can reach the American standard [and] that it is possible for a member of the Negro Race to overcome the handicaps of centuries in a single generation.' Noting the dearth of 'Negro ... oil kings, movie magnates and magnificent stock exchange gamblers,' the New York Post wrote: 'Mrs. Walker demon­strated that [Negroes] may rise to the most distinctive heights of American achievement. Men who do nothing but sneer at what Coleridge-Taylor composed, Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote or Booker T. Washington built will be all respect when the Negroes have their full quota of millionaires.'

"It certainly had been Madam Walker's dream to become a millionaire, and a goal she and Ransom had envisioned for several years. Just months before her death, she told a reporter that she hoped to give 'a million dol­lars to help my Race fight for its rights.' Had she lived another decade she undoubtedly would have fulfilled her wish.

"Ultimately, however, it was not the final figure in the ledger books that defined the measure of Madam Walker's life, but the promise she bequeathed to future generations that they might realize even greater successes and dream ever more elaborate dreams. The fact that several gener­ations of African Americans have believed that she was a millionaire made such a goal seem possible.

"In an affectionate parting remembrance, her friend Mary McLeod Bethune called her 'the clearest demonstration I know of Negro woman's ability recorded in history. She has gone, but her work still lives and shall live as an inspiration to not only her race but to the world.'"



A'Lelia Bundles


On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker


Washington Square Press


Copyright 2001 by A'Lelia Bundles


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