In the early 1900s, the "Wonderful Hair Grower" formula was created to meet the specific styling needs of African American women. This product, and many others, were part of Madam C. J. Walker's national beauty empire. Not only did Madame Walker help African American women look good, she provided employment for many of them, and in the process, became a powerful force for social change. Madame Walker's legacy continues in the 21st century, as an inspiration to new generations of young black women.
"Cornrows and Company" is an elegant African American beauty salon in Washington D.C. Chatting with their stylists in front of a cozy fireplace, sipping hot green and mint tea, clients are already feeling good about themselves.
Salon owner Pamela Ferrell takes a natural approach to helping African American women keep their hair beautiful and, more importantly, healthy.
"We do not do any chemical work," she explains. "For example, we don't relax hair, or any kind of chemically altering the hair texture. Our main objective is healthy hair care. We do braids, we twist, we do locks, we do haircuts, hair and scalp analysis and we do hair loss treatments. It's all about uplifting women and doing things that are healthy to her."
In running her own business, Ms. Ferrell is following in the footsteps of Madam C.J. Walker, who in the early 1900s invented and manufactured hair products and opened a network of salons for African American women. Madam Walker's great-great-granddaughter, A'Lelia Bundles, says she also helped set the standard for African American beauty.
"She was dealing with something more complicated, with the image of black women in a society, where the European standards of beauty, the blond hair and blue eyes, was considered more attractive," she explains. "So Madam Walker was battling this image and was trying to have women not only groom themselves, but feel good about how they look as African American."
A'Lelia Bundles has written a biography of her great-great grandmother, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. She says the more she learned about her famous ancestor, the more she wanted to share the story with others.
"Madam C.J. Walker was born in 1867, two years after the civil war ended. She was a daughter of a slave. She had no formal education. Both her parents died by the time she was seven. Yet, by the time she died in 1919 at age 51, she was one of the most successful businesswomen America had ever seen," she explains.
Madam C.J. Walker started her a million-dollar beauty care empire with five products. Ms. Bundles says the most popular one was called the "Wonderful Hair Grower."
"Madam Walker, like so many other women [of the time], didn't wash her hair very often and she had horrible scalp disease, and as a result she was going bald. So she developed this ointment that included sulfur and sulfur was a centuries-old remedy that healed skin and scalp disease," she explains. "So Madam C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower, when applied after shampooing the hair more frequently, allowed women's scalp to be healthier and their hair to grow back. That was her most popular product. It's not something that you'd need as much today because we have hundreds of shampoo and people know to wash their hair more often, but at that time it was quite revolutionary."
Having complete access to her great-great grandmother's personal letters and business records allowed Ms. Bundles to draw an intimate portrait of this remarkable woman.
"Her business interest really made it difficult for her to have a happy marriage. She was married three times. Her first husband died. She left her second husband, and she divorced her third husband, who helped her in her business, in part because she was much more driven and much more ambitious than he was," she says. "But on the other hand, she was a person who loved parties, great food and music. She liked getting together with her friends. So it's not like she had a barren personal life, she just wasn't married during the last 13 years of her life."
Through her salons, training programs and nationwide sales force, Madam Walker provided lucrative incomes for thousands of African American women who otherwise would have had to find work as farm laborers, washerwomen or maids. She encouraged her saleswomen to be politically active, and join her in arousing what she called "the American sense of justice." And she reconfigured the philosophy of charitable giving in the black community with her large, unprecedented contributions to local and national organizations.
Beauty salon owner Pamela Ferrell says that 100 years after Madam Walker started her own company, she still serves as a role model and inspiration for African-American businesswomen.
"Madam C.J. Walker started her business with a $1.50! Beyond her being the first self-made millionaire, because that's what people think of her," she says. "If we really knew the kind of person she was, the work she did, it would be an inspiration because clearly the circumstances and the conditions of African Americans were a lot harder back in the early 1900s than they are today. So of course if she could do it there is no excuse why we can't do all these things."
In 1998, Madam C.J. Walker was honored by the U.S. Postal Service. It included her portrait in its Black Heritage Series of commemorative stamps, alongside other outstanding African American activists, educators and leaders. Last fall, the National Museum of Women in the Arts selected Madam Walker as one the 40 most important businesswomen in U.S. history.