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With the passage of time, Walker's 23 products attracted annual gross earnings as high as $276,000 (1917) and her business employed around 3,000 employees most of whom were females. (Latham, 1993; Nelson, 1987).
In a short time Madame Walker had more customers she could accommodate. She set up a shop, trained other women to assist her, and soon founded a school from which graduates received diploma permitting them to operate shops of their own, using the ' Walker system'; always, however, with the solemn admonition not to call themselves 'hair straighteners.' They were crisply told to use the title 'hair culturist' or 'scalp specialist.' All necessary metal implements and ointments were purchased from Madame Walker, and so profitable was the sale of equipment and the return from tuitions that her yearly payroll mounted to more than two hundred thousand dollars. The dekinking process developed into a sizable industry, soon found vogue with crinkly-haired white women, and Madame Walker became a millionaire -- one of the first women, white or black, to achieve this goal by her own efforts in business." (Ottley: p. 171)
Walker had developed a strict code of conduct for women which was meant to empower females especially blacks. There was a respectable uniform that they were made to wear, consisting of white blouses and long black skirts. These uniforms helped in identification of Walker employees, these salespersons thus became a symbol of entrepreneurship and success for others in the downtrodden black areas. These uniforms also helped lure other females to the workforce and this helped in revolutionizing the way black women saw themselves and their future.
The hair products created by Walker became internationally known brands. They were widely used for various types of hair related problems and many celebrities also began using them including Josephine Baker, the American black nightclub performer who was well-known and well loved in France. The business soared beyond belief and within a few years, the Walker Empire was established. To successfully handle the growing business, Walker set up an office in Pittsburgh which was run by her daughter and later in 1910, a headquarters was established in Indianapolis. But her own business was not the only concern that Walker supervised, she also provided employment to thousands of poor black women and also established the Walker College of Hair Culture which produced many 'beauty culturists' of the time. With her determination, courage and a nevr-say-die attitude, she became a symbol of outstanding achievement for many women and helped produce successful entrepreneurs and educators.
But success also meant indulgence. Walker, with her incredible fame and wealth, also adorned the lifestyle of rich and famous. She invested heavily in her villa which.." was erected at a cost of $250,000, and invested with $400,000 worth of furnishings, and was called the Villa Lewaro. The name was suggested by Enrico Caruso, the famous opera singer. For years afterward sight-seeing busses carried the Negro hoi polloi up to the estate to stare and marvel. In this fabulous palace Madame Walker drew social lines closely. She gave dinners, musicales, balls, and entertainments which at one time or another were attended by nearly every influential Negro in Black America. Marcus Garvey, one of her closest friends, was a frequent visitor." (p. 172)
Walker was however a philanthropist to the core. She left large sums of money to charities at the time of her death in 1919. The organizations that stood to benefit from her money included Mary McLeod Bethune's Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls, the National Association of Colored Women, the National Conference on Lynching, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Palmer Memorial Institute. A film titled 'Two Dollars and a Dream' was made by Stanley Nelson to pay tribute to America's first female entrepreneur. This film chronicled the life and struggles of Walker who rose from dismal poverty with nothing but a vision to become a source of inspiration for millions of women around the world.
Roi Ottley - author, John O'Hara Cosgrave II, - illustrator, New World A-Coming. Inside Black America.. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston. 1943.
Bundles A. (1992), Madam C.J. Walker (New York: Chelsea House);
Latham C. (1993), Madam C.J. Walker (1867- 1919) Collection (1910- 1980): Historical Sketch, Indiana Historical Society
Madame C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker): Inventor, Businesswoman" (1997),…[continue]
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