Madame C J Walker
Madame Walker fashioned an empire
by Sherri Winston, published March 28, 2001 in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.
Madame C.J. Walker. Do you know who she is?
casual history buff, the answer may spring easily. "She's the first black
woman millionaire in America."
Many may even know that she made her
million selling hair-care products for black women. Born Sarah Breedlove
in 1867, the Southern washerwoman-turned-inventor went from the abject
poverty of America's Reconstruction Era, to building herself an
Madame Walker invented the hot comb, which could straighten
black women's hair and revolutionize how we tended to our
Since childhood, I've been fascinated with Madame
Walker. Although books on her were rare, most illustrations showed a woman
with a sturdy frame and an elegant stature. A woman with full features and
a face round like mine.
Over the years, attempts to find out more
about the entrepreneur proved frustrating. The most I could find were
histories written for juveniles.
Recently, I came across The
(Ballentine, $14), a fictionalized history about the life
of Madame Walker that came out in paperback in January. Author Tananarive
Due, a former South Florida resident, offers a vivid, memorable journey
through Walker's fields of poverty to the industry of hope.
elevates Due's novel, however, is the source of her information.
author and historical legend Alex Haley began researching the
life and times of Sarah Breedlove Walker before his death but never had
the opportunity to use his findings.
"I got a call from my agent
saying the Haley estate would like to talk to me about doing a book based
on Alex Haley's research. When the Haley estate calls, you take note," Due
says during a phone interview from her home in Long View,
"The Haley name was magical to me. I read Roots
was a kid. I was really captivated by Roots
. Not only his story so
much as the hunger it awakened in me. It was inspirational how Alex Haley
was able to trace himself back to the motherland," Due says.
whose previous fiction, including My Soul To Keep
, dealt with the
supernatural, says historical fiction was a departure. Like any good
journalist, she began to research Madame Walker. "Like you, all I found
were juvenile books," she says.
Even so, she read enough to know
the basics. And the basics intrigued her.
Walker's is the ultimate story of survival and beating the odds. She was
born into the first generation of post-slavery blacks and her parents,
Minerva and Owen Breedlove, were poor and poorer. She was uneducated and
socially unacceptable. She had every reason in the world to fail. Sarah
would go on to marry, first at 14, only to lose that husband to racial
violence. But her marriage to C.J. Walker, a man who owned a newspaper and
had business savvy, proved pivotal to her success.
"Life was hard
for a lot of folks back then," Due says. "The stories are all basically
the same -- heartache and poverty. Still, I was most surprised by how much
"She didn't even start with nothing. She started with
less than nothing. Starting with nothing would be to at least have one
parent. She had no money. Her parents died when she was young. What's
amazing about her was that she was so determined."
Sarah Walker was
the first American woman to sell products through the mail, the first to
organize door-to-door sellers. At a time when the Klan was instrumental in
spreading hate propaganda and lynching was as common as dandruff, Walker
managed to educate laundresses and domestics on how to use her products,
sell her products and liberate themselves from an economic system designed
to keep them down.
Although Due's latest book, The Living
(My Soul To Keep
's sequel), arrives in stores April 3,
she says completing The Black Rose
will always remain as a
highlight in her career.
"I learned that my father's mother was
trained by the Walker school," she says. "I'd known she was a beautician,
but I didn't know she was trained with the Madame Walker
I've always loved the hope, the promise that lies
beneath Madame C.J. Walker's history. The Black Rose
story with freshness and vitality.
"She decided to fashion this
life for herself out of dust," Due says.
For women, Madame Walker
represents the promise in us all.Sherri Winston's column
appears on Wednesdays in Lifestyle. She can be reached at 954-356-4108 or
Copyright © 2001,
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Click here for more about Sherri Winston.