1° gennaio 1863, Unite States of America. The President Abraham Lincoln declared the “Emancipation Proclamation”; even though its spread application required further time, slavery was at that point officially abolished.
In the endless expanses of cotton fields in Louisiana there is a little village, named Delta, where there were huge mansions for a few white rich families and hundreds of slaves living in run down wooden shacks. Amongst them there are the Breedlove, mother, father and six children. The youngest ones Sarah e Solomon were the only ones born free as they started their life after 1863.
Sarah Breedlove Walker
Sarah was born in 1867 so she was one of the born free people, but also still living in a run down wooden shack, still growing cotton, in a sharecrop arrangement, still for an owner. Kids did not know anything but the harsh work on the fields and if the harvest was not working out there was not much to eat on the table.
Things could still go worse than that though: in 1872 both Sarah’s parents died and the little girl became orphan at the age of 7. At that point she moved at her older sister’s, married with a bad individual who treated her poorly and maybe abused her too. But Sarah’s had some income as a maid and at the age of 14 she found a way to escape that environment: she got married at 17 years old then had her daughter Leila and when she turned 20 she was already a widow.
Sarah found herself alone as a young mother, with no parents and in a Southern state where the black community was persecuted. In 1882 she decided to join her brothers, all barbers, in Saint Louis, Missouri. There she would have not been in a village anymore but instead the city could have had more opportunities for a person such as her.
Below: picture of Sarah Breedlove Walker
In reality the opportunities for a black illiterate woman were not many there either, but there, at least, Sarah could attend the African Methodist Episcopal Church of St.Paul. This was the beginning of a long way to the emancipation. She started to work as a laundress, she found where to leave her daughter while she was intent on working for white people and especially thanks to the program of literacy for women of colour. In 1894 Sarah met John Davis and the two got married, but the union soon turned into a trap: Davis is used to beating her up especially when he was drunk, which means almost every time. Besides that, he gambled with his wife’s money and soon he got a lover. in 1903 the relationship stopped.
In the meantime Sarah looked up for new routes, in order to make some extra money instead of that position as a laundress that granted her only a dollar and a half a day. She started selling door to door products for hair care destined to the Afro American population.
Many women of colour at that time suffered from early baldness and they were subject to various problems to their scalp such as dandruff which seemed to not want to go away. Furthermore the absence of running water and electricity had as a consequence a rather poor personal hygiene, that added up to particularly aggressive products, not much money and an inadequate diet would result in hair loss.
The issue with the baldness affected Sarah as well, who first tried to test some products on the advice of her barbiers brothers then in 1902 she met Annie Malone. Malone had her own company, the Poro, where they produced shampoo and hair cream. The brand opened up a store in St. Louis, hoping for good revenues during the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904.
While she tried her best to sell products from the Poro company, Sarah experimented some formulae of her own. In 1905 she moved to Denver where she met a pharmacist, maybe the cook in her house), who taught her the basic of chemistry. Sarah developed an ointment which gave great results against dandruff and hair loss. Malone at this point was severely fed up, sueuing Sarah for having stolen her formula; in reality it was a mixture of sulphur and vaseline, recipe already known in the industry.
In 1906 Sarah married Charles Walker, newspaper advertising salesman who became her business partner. Sarah began to sell her products door to door along with her husband while the daughter Leila, from Denver, was dealing with the mail orders.
Above: picture shared by Smithsonian Museum
From that frenzy activity something important happened: Sarah was known to her clients as Madam CJ Walker, and she started teaching to Afro-American women how to nurture their hair as well as the basic of hygiene. In Pittsburgh she opens a beauty salon where she trained many “hair culturists”, agents of Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. These were all women of colour to whom Sarah taught hair care techniques.
This alone was already a great achievement for that time considering that with the selling activity the agents were gaining way more than as maids or laundrettes. Sarah was not satisfied with it though, so she took one step further and passed to her 20,000 agents the value of economic independence and commitment in the workplace.
In her company many are the women who started a good career path and reached high up positions
Sarah Breedlove Walker driving a car with three other friends, 1911
The ads on newspapers and magazines, the promotions across the whole US before and to the Caribbean later allowed the brand and the afro – American community to be known.
Madam Walker stood out also for her substantial donations for numerous associations for the emancipation and support of the black community. In New York she built Villa Lewaro for her family, and that became the point of reference for all the coloured people who were dreaming about independence and social equality.
Villa Lewaro today
Above: picture by Jim.henderson shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY 4.0
Sarah died at the age of 51 when she had become the richest afro American woman of the US. Her assets were approximately 600,000 dollars, a real fortune compared to what today that figure would mean. Madam Walker entered the Guinness World Records as the first coloured woman to become a millionaire. Last but not least she became part of the list of the one hundred most important Afro- -American people in history.
Meeting of the agents – Villa Lewaro, 1924
Above: picture part of the collection shared by Smithsonian Museum
In reality Sarah Breedlove Walker has been much more than just this. In a period in which being a woman of colour meant to be condemned for emargination she just didn’t change her own position but she fought to help many other people who, maybe without her model would have not been able to react. She would explain the path to take in this terms:
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground”.