“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South,” said Madam CJ Walker, looking back on her hard-won career. “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.”
But what is the true-life story of this fascinating woman? And how closely does Netflix’s new four-part biopic Self Made (starring Octavia Spencer in the lead) stick to the truth? Here’s what you need to know…
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Who was Madam CJ Walker?
Originally known as Sarah Breedlove, Madam CJ Walker was an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist who built a haircare business entirely from scratch in early 20th century America – becoming the nation’s first female self-made millionaire.
What was Madam CJ Walker’s background?
Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867, just two years after the end of the American Civil War and only four years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Her family still lived on the Louisiana cotton plantation where her parents had recently been enslaved, and where they now worked as sharecroppers.
Orphaned at aged seven, young Sarah received only three months of formal education and survived by working in the cotton fields with her older sister, Louvenia. But Louvenia married a man called Jesse Powell, often described as cruel and abusive – so when Sarah was just 14, she married Moses McWilliams to get away from her brother-in-law. But by the time she was 20, she was a widow with a two-year-old daughter called Lelia.
After husband Moses’s death, Sarah and Lelia moved to the city of St Louis in Missouri, where her older brothers had already established themselves as barbers. In St Louis, Sarah worked as a laundress and scraped together enough money to send her daughter to school for an education. Crucially, she also attended the African Methodist Episcopal Church and joined the ‘National Association of Colored Women’ and started to form friendships with leading black men and women who inspired in her a new way of viewing the world.
During this time she also married her second husband, John Davis. Unfortunately, the relationship was not a happy one and later broke down. And that’s the moment where we pick up the story in the first episode of Netflix’s Self Made…
How did Madam CJ Walker start her company? Was she really balding?
During the 1890s, Sarah found herself suffering from a scalp ailment that caused most of her hair to fall out. Though her brothers were barbers, they couldn’t offer much advice about actually caring for damaged hair; instead, Sarah looked around for products and homemade remedies to solve her problem. She found success when she tried out the products of Annie Malone, another black female entrepreneur.
In 1905 she moved to Denver as a sales agent for Annie Malone with only loose change in her pocket, and the following year Charles Joseph Walker followed her from St Louis to Denver to marry her and become her third husband. He has been described variously as a “newspaperman” and a “salesman” and it was his name which gave Sarah her new title, Madam CJ Walker.
Sarah adopted that name because – aside from being a sales agent for Annie’s product – she was also developing her own line of products and establishing her own business. Apparently inspired by a recipe that came to her in a dream, she began selling her own products – including Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower for scalp conditioning and healing. She quickly developed a loyal following.
Who was Addie Munroe?
In the Netflix drama we meet Sarah’s friend-turned-nemesis, Addie Munroe (played by Carmen Ejogo). While Addie did not actually exist in real life, she does appear to be loosely based on the real-life figure of Annie Malone.
Annie was an African American haircare entrepreneur who founded the Poro Company and became extremely wealthy in her own right. Sarah Breedlove originally worked as one of Annie’s agents, but she later took her new knowledge and built her own haircare business and struck out on her own.
That didn’t go down very well with Annie, who wrote a letter to a local paper in Denver. “That’s when their lifelong feud began, because Malone said, ‘You stole my formula,'” Walker’s biographer and granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles said. “There were very few products on the market at the time, but if you look at medical journals, this mixture of petrolatum and sulphur had been around for a hundred years. It is very similar to Cuticura Soap’s original formula, so neither of these women really created this recipe.”
How did Madam CJ Walker rise to success?
Over the next few years, Madam CJ Walker worked tirelessly to build her business empire.
Firstly she travelled through the South and Southeast of the USA, demonstrating her treatments in black churches and selling door-to-door and coming up with a strategy. Husband CJ (played by Blair Underwood) tagged along as her business partner, advising her on promotion and marketing for the fledgling enterprise.
In 1908, Walker relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to open a black beauty parlour where the focus was on healthy hair. Here, she was joined by grown-up daughter Lelia (now “A’Lelia”), who moved over from Denver to help with the business. Sarah also began training and deploying smartly-dressed sales agents, teaching them the “Walker System” – which included a shampoo, a pomade to promote hair growth, hard brushing, and the use of iron combs. Her employees formed a national network of licensed agents who all earned commission for their sales.
In 1910, Sarah again shifted her business, this time to the Indiana city of Indianapolis. This is where she based her HQ, establishing the Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company and purchasing a factory to make her product. Later, she actually built her own factory alongside her own salon, beauty school, and lab.
While business was flourishing at this time, all was not well in Sarah’s marriage with CJ – and in 1912 they ultimately divorced, with CJ tying the knot again with Dora Larrie (ultimately a short-lived marriage). Sarah did not remarry, but continued to throw herself into building her own business and supporting the causes she was passionate about.
That included using her fortune to fund scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute; contributing a headline-grabbing $1,000 to the building fund of the “coloured” YMCA in Indianapolis; and donating large parts of her wealth to the NAACP to fight against racial discrimination and violence. She actively encouraged her employees to give back to their communities, and rewarded them with bonuses when they did; she promoted female talent, and in 1915 she launched a lawsuit to protest discrimination at a theatre in Indianapolis.
Sarah was particularly vocal about lynchings in the South, and during the First World War she was part of a delegation to Washington to protest against the War Department’s segregationist policies.
With the company well established in Indianapolis, Sarah turned her attention elsewhere – travelling to Central America and the Caribbean to expand her business. On her return, she joined her daughter in New York (where A’Lelia had been living in a fabulous and sociable townhouse since 1913) and commissioned an architect to build her own grand estate. Living in New York, she became ever-more involved in political matters and social issues – rubbing shoulders with Mary McLeod Bethune and WEB Du Bois and trying to attract the support of Booker T Washington.
In 1918, Walker’s lavish country home near Washington, Villa Lewaro, was completed. But she wasn’t able to enjoy the fruits of her labour for long; in 1919 she died of kidney failure and complications of hypertension at the age of just 51.
What happened to her daughter A’Lelia?
Though she was born Lelia McWilliams, Sarah’s daughter later took on her stepfather’s name and became “A’Lelia Walker”. A’Lelia helped her mother found the Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company in 1906 and was closely involved with the company, opening its New York office and beauty salon in 1913.
A’Lelia Walker was married three times: firstly to hotel waiter John Robinson (as seen in Self Made), though they separated around 1911 and divorced in 1914; secondly to a Dr Wiley Wilson in 1919, and finally to Dr James Arthur Kennedy in 1926 – divorcing in 1931. (Although the TV series includes a queer storyline for A’Lelia, that appears to be a bit of dramatic licence by the show’s writers.)
When her mother died in 1919, A’Lelia Walker became president of the Walker Company – though aside from this, she was also famous as a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, hosting memorable salons at her New York townhouse where she gathered together writers, artists, musicians. Poet Langston Hughes dubbed her “The Joy Goddess of Harlem’s 1920s”.
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As president, A’Lelia expanded the company’s reach beyond the USA in the 1920s to countries including Cuba and Jamaica, ably assisted by Freeman B Ransom who served as CFO and CEO and general counsel. But the business was badly hit by the Great Depression in 1929, and Lelia herself died in 1931 at the age of just 46.
Despite having no biological children, in 1912 (just after the breakdown of her first marriage) A’Lelia had adopted a teenager called Fairy Mae Bryant, who became known as Mae Walker. It was Mae who now took over the company until her own death in 1945, when she passed on the presidency to her daughter. And her daughter, A’Lelia Bundles, is the author of the biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker – upon which this Netflix drama is based.
Self Made is available on Netflix now