2003-02-01 / Community

Saluting Black History Month

By Gary G. Toms

Saluting Black History Month

Madame C.J. Walker contributed thousands of dollars to black colleges and charities in the United States, and she bequeathed $100,000 toward the establishment of an academy for girls in West Africa.Madame C.J. Walker contributed thousands of dollars to black colleges and charities in the United States, and she bequeathed $100,000 toward the establishment of an academy for girls in West Africa. The 'My Icon' Series
Community Leaders Reflect on Those Who Inspired Them
By Gary G. Toms

The Wave is proud to present this latest feature in our annual salute to Black History Month. This year, we are shedding the spotlight on several community leaders, as they share their thoughts on the black icons that left an indelible mark on their lives. Rachel Forde, Director of Workforce Development for the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation (RDRC), submitted the first installment of this four-part series.

"Madame C.J. Walker is my choice as the icon that had a profound impact on my life. She affected me because she was a woman of determination who possessed strong spiritual and survival traits. She knew who she was, and she always remained focused on obtaining her goals and assisting others.

Walker was born Sarah Breedlove Walker, a pauper, in 1869, in the state of Louisiana. She was the child of ex-slaves, and both parents died when she was just six years old. Walker married at the age of 14, but was widowed by the age 20. She supported herself by taking in laundry, and one day she realized that she was losing her hair. She prayed that God would save her hair, and through a dream she was told to obtain a specific oil from an African country to solve her problem. Sarah searched until she located the oil, used it on her scalp, and continued to add other ingredients to the oil until her hair began to grow back. It did not take long before she realized that this product could help other black women, and that marked the beginning of her success. She eventually went on to become the first black female millionaire.

Walker later developed the straightening comb to accommodate black women and their hair texture. She began a door-to-door business to market her hair products, and within a relatively short period of time, she opened a school to train black women in the field of cosmetology. Walker employed 2000 agents to sell her "Walker System" of hair styling and cosmetics, which were manufactured at her factory in Indianapolis.

Sarah Breedlove Walker became 'Madame' C.J. Walker because at the time she married 'Mr. C.J.', the title of Madame referred to women of status or high class at the turn of the twentieth century. So, she combined the names and titles and referred to herself, and the business, as Madame C.J. Walker. She became extremely wealthy, so wealthy that she purchased a mansion at Irvington-on-the-Hudson in New York. She lived quite well, but she never forgot her background and the plight of other blacks. She contributed thousands of dollars to black colleges and charities in the United States, and she bequeathed $100,000 toward the establishment of an academy for girls in West Africa. One of the most amazing aspects about her life, that few people know, is that she did not learn how to read or write until she had established her first factory.

Walker died in 1919, and I strongly believe that she left a legacy and a model for success that is being utilized by many of today's entrepreneurs. Her life illustrates that success is basically a dream and desire to accomplish a goal. At the same time, she showed us that success also means providing opportunities to others. She was blessed because of her love of spirituality and mankind. So, there you have it. That is the story of my icon, and you can learn a great deal more about this remarkable woman. Just do the research, and you may become empowered as well."


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