On behalf of the GSWNY Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Committee, to celebrate Black History Month, each week we’re highlighting a groundbreaking Black woman for her accomplishments related to the four program pillars of Girl Scouts. This week, we’re highlighting Madame C.J. Walker for Entrepreneurship.
Madame C.J. Walker: 1867-1919
We selected Madam C.J. Walker for Entrepreneurship because she is often held up as one of the first examples of a Black woman having an internationally successful business that still exists today and becoming America’s first female self-made millionaire, despite experiencing racism and discrimination throughout her life. Walker’s story is difficult to reduce to a brief biography, so we encourage further research into her life and story.
Born as Sarah Breedlove to former slaves on Dec. 23, 1867 in Louisiana, she was one of six children. Sadly, at age seven, she became an orphan and lived with her older sister Louvenia working in the cotton fields. To escape her abusive brother-in-law, Breedlove married at age 14. She had a daughter (born with the name Lelia, but later known as A’Lelia) with her husband, but sadly a few short years later in 1887 he passed away leaving her a single parent.
Two years later, she moved to St. Louis, MO, where her four brothers were barbers. She worked as a laundress and cook to support herself. She joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church, meeting successful and educated Black men and women. In 1894, she remarried, but later divorced.
In 1904, Walker was experiencing hair loss and began using African American businesswoman Annie Turnbo Malone’s “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower” and joined her team of Black sales agents. In 1905, she moved to Denver, CO, and married advertiser Charles Joseph Walker, renaming herself to Madam C.J. Walker, and launching her own life of hair products for Black women called “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.”
Her husband assisted her with advertising and setting up a mail-order business. In 1910, the couple divorced and she relocated to Indianapolis, building a factory for her Walker Manufacturing Company. She opened a training program in the “Walker System” for Black people to become licensed sales agents, earning commissions and providing a means for Black women to become economically independent. She employed 40,000 Black people in the United States, Central America, and the Caribbean. She also founded the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association in 1917.
Through her philanthropic and political work, Walker contributed to the YMCA, covered tuition for 6 African American students at the Tuskegee Institute, and became active in the anti-lynching movement.
Walker’s sales exceeded $500,000 by the end of her life, and with assets like her mansion in Irvington, NY, and additional properties in Harlem, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, her net worth exceeded $1 million dollars. Her will allocated donations of profits from her company toward various schools and individuals. Today, her products are sold exclusively by Sephora under the name Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture, sometimes abbreviated to MCJW Beauty Culture or MCJW Beauty.
The above biography was adapted from the National Women’s History Museum: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/madam-cj-walker
The following resources expand on Walker’s life and work.
- MadamCJWalker.com: https://madamcjwalker.com/about/
- Netflix mini-series Self Made: https://www.netflix.com/title/80202462 (Please note this is a dramatized adaptation and may not be fully historically accurate.)
- Biography.com – How Madam C.J. Walker Invented Her Hair Care Products: https://www.biography.com/news/madam-cj-walker-invent-hair-care-products
- Great Women of Business Podcast: Madam C.J. Walker – Necessity: https://open.spotify.com/episode/2l5d5n9f9sizA0qy9pRlti
- The Liturgists: Black History is American History: https://theliturgists.com/black-history-is-american-history/madam-c-j-walker
- Smithsonian Channel: Meet the First Self-Made Female Millionaire, featuring A’Lelia Bundles, great-great granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker (video): https://youtu.be/wEKXMHIGmrQ
Black History Month Facts & Information
Vice President Kamala Harris’ victory is historic in more than just one way. Not only is she the first woman of color to serve as vice president, but she is also the first high-ranking White House official to graduate from a historically Black college or university (HBCU). HBCUs were created in the 19th century to provide higher education to African Americans who at the time, and for many years afterward, were denied admission to existing colleges and universities which were predominantly white. The Institute for Colored Youth (now named Cheyney University of Pennsylvania), founded in 1837, was the first HBCU in the United States. Today, there are over 100 HBCUs and they serve students from a wide range of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Vice President Harris graduated from Howard University in 1986.
Here are some other African American women who also accomplished notable “firsts” and attended HBCUs:
- Alice Walker – first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction – Spelman College
- Althea Gibson – first African American tennis player to win Wimbledon, French, and U.S. Open titles – Florida A&M University
- Oprah Winfrey – first African American woman to host a nationally syndicated talk show – Tennessee State University
- Phylicia Rashad – first African American to win a Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play – Howard University
- Stacey Abrams – first African American female nominee for governor in the United States – Spelman College
- Toni Morrison – first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature – Howard University
Activities for All Ages
For Daisies & Brownies
For Juniors & Cadettes
- Entrepreneurs Word Search—girls are encouraged to learn more about all of the people in the word search on their own
- African American Inventors Worksheet
For Seniors, Ambassadors, & Adults
- Black-owned businesses to support in the Buffalo area
- Black-owned businesses to support in the Rochester area
- Watch “Self Made” series on Netflix (based on Madame CJ Walker’s life)
- Watch “SURVIVING AND THRIVING: WHEN RACISM DESTROYED 1920S BLACK WALL STREET IN TULSA OKLAHOMA”
Girl Scout Values: Anti-Racism Patch
The Girl Scouts Anti-Racism Patch is a reflection that we are committed to our Girl Scout values that foster a community of justice, fairness, and inclusion. This Black History Month, consider using the list of ideas and resources provided to earn the patch with your girl or troop and when you are ready, sign our Girl Scouts Stands Against Racism Pledge.