In today’s jargon, psychologist Angela Duckworth, who studies the trait that leads to high achievement, calls tenacious and dogged perseverance “true grit” after the young girl character in the movie of the same name. This concept of “grit” characterizes the woman who would become known as Madam C. J. Walker.
Imagine a black baby girl born in the Deep South in 1867 . . . her mother dies when she is 5 . . . her father dies when she is 7 . . . orphaned with no formal education, she’s taken in by her sister and brother-in-law to support the family by picking cotton. Imagine further that young girl is abused by her brother-in-law and marrys at 14 to avoid further exploitation. Lastly, imagine this young woman with a baby at 18 and widowed at 20.
The woman we are imagining is Sarah Breedlove a/k/a Madam C.J. Walker – a woman believed to be this country’s first self made woman millionaire. She was an extraordinary entrepreneur having developed a business model that thrives to this day. She was also a civil rights activist and a philanthropist. In her day, what she accomplished had typically only been accomplished by men. Today we would call her a gender non-conformist.
It was just 2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Sarah, the 6th child of newly freed slave/then sharecropper parents, was born in a small, run down, rural cabin.
Her life before and after being orphaned was difficult – both emotionally and physically. Her early marriage, which was her escape from abuse, only lasted 6 years. After the death of her husband, 20 year old Sarah and her 2 year old toddler set off for St. Louis to be near her brothers who had established themselves as barbers.
After arriving at her new home and working as a washer woman, Sarah began to lose her hair – not surprising given her challenging living circumstances, high stress level, and the customary use of lye soap for bathing, shampooing and laundering. The combination of losing her hair and exposure to barber brothers caused Sarah to look for and find answers. As with others with “grit”, adversity became a catalyst for success.
She looked for hair loss remedies and experimented with various products. After a short stint selling hair products for another, Sarah decided to develop and sell her own products. During this time she married Charles J. Walker, who worked in advertising and became her business promoter. He suggested she market her products under the name, Madam C.J. Walker.
Once Madam C. J. Walker got started, there was no stopping her. Neither her race nor her gender kept her from realizing her potential. In her own words in July 1912, “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.”
Hard work and determination spurred her to create a business model (later replicated by Mary Kay Cosmetics) that provided opportunities for up to 3000 women – opportunities to be commissioned sales agents with access to education and training and the dignity of working for themselves rather than as domestic or farm help – the only other viable work options for black women of the time.
Sarah divorced her husband and moved her business to Indianapolis setting up a factory and a research center while her daughter expanded the enterprise setting up a mail order business to complement the door-to-door sales business. Sarah valued her employees providing prizes for their profitability while also encouraging charitable giving – encouraging them with a favorite phrase – “lifting while we climb”.
Ironically, Indianapolis was also the home to the Ku Klux Klan. This may have contributed to her early civil rights activism supporting the NAACP with its anti-lynching campaign. At the time, lynching of boys and men (and girls and women) was not uncommon. In fact, a black man could be lynched for simply looking at a white woman.
Sarah was ahead of her time in many ways. Her work with hair products led the way for black women to begin to recognize their own racial beauty. In support of this, she used her image on all her products.
Once she became of person of means, she shared her wealth. Her philanthropy included gifts to the YMCA and Tuskegee Institute. When she died, she left the vast majority of her estate and future business profits to charity. When she learned that the black soldiers in WWI did not receive the same level of medical care as the white soldiers, she bought ambulances specifically for the black soldiers.
Later in her life, she bought a mansion in Irvington, New York. This home, which is now a national landmark, was a meeting place for NAACP and other black leaders of the day. Sarah’s daughter, who entertained widely in this home and hosted a cultural salon, was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
Never one to conform to gender stereotypes and expectations, including the fact that the recently invented automobile was considered a man’s machine, Sarah bought three different cars and drove them herself for both transport and entertainment.
She died in her mansion at 51 from kidney failure and other complications of hypertension. She was buried at Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx. Her legend lives on in her family and in her products which are still being sold!
Unlike the grand white industrialists of the time such as Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller, who were largely motivated by power and greed, Sarah’s traits included honesty, integrity and desire to make the world a better place. She became a role model for other women to follow.
Today’s psychologists would give Sarah Breedlove a very high score on the “grit” scale. Her life story is one of tenacious and dogged perseverance in the pursuit of a better life for herself, her daughter and her community.
If interested in learning more about Sarah Breedlove, please check out the website, madamcjwalker.com which is hosted by Sarah’s great, great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles.