The latest History Twins podcast is about Madam C. J. Walker (1867 – 1919), who made a fortune by developing and marketing a line of cosmetics and hair care products for Black women, especially through the business she founded, the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.
The first child of her large family born free. Sarah Breedlove was a child near Delta, Louisiana where her parents die and she was orphaned by the age of seven. She moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, at the age of 10, working as a domestic servant.
In 1882, then 14, Sarah married for the first time to escape abuse from her brother-in-law. Widowed at 20 with one child, she moved to St. Louis where her brothers were barbers, working as a laundress. She remarried in 1894, but left this second husband around 1903 and married Charles Joseph Walker, becoming known as Madam C. J. Walker. They divorced in 1912.
In about 1904, she began selling Annie Malone products on commission. Malone was the millionaire African-American hair-care entrepreneur of the Poro Company. The following year she moved with her daughter to Denver and started making her own products, selling them door to door in the Denver area, and soon beginning a successful mail-order business.
In 1908, Walker and her family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and opened a beauty salon and a training program. By 1910, she had expanded the business to Indianapolis, where the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company became headquartered. Walker’s company employed many thousands women to sell her products on commissions, and in 1917, had trained some 20,000 women.
In 1913, on the advice of her daughter, Walker built an office and beauty salon in Harlem in New York City, which was becoming the center of Black culture in America. Walker bought two next-door brownstone buildings, in which she housed Walker Hair Salon and Beauty School, an apartment for her daughter Lelia, and a social salon on the top floor where Lelia hosted many musicians, actors, writers, artists, political figures and socialites.
In 1918, Walker commissioned Vertner Tandy, one of the first licensed black architects in New York City to design her house on “Millionaire’s Row” in Irvington, Westchester County, NY, where it still stands today. Walker was also known for her philanthropy and activism. She delivered lectures on political, economic, and social issues at conventions sponsored by black institutions.
Walker died on May 25, 1919 at the age of 51 and is buried in the Bronx, in Woodlawn Cemetery.
In this podcast episode Carla and Keyes also discuss the research and creative process that went into creating their two-person play, An Afternoon with Madam C. J. Walker, in which Italian opera star Enrico Caruso meets Madam C. J. Walker at her Irvington mansion.
In their imagined story, Madam C. J. Walker shares her life story with Enrico Caruso. In real life, Caruso was a friend of Madam C. J. Walker’s daughter, and named Walker’s mansion “Villa Lewaro” using the first two letters of each word in the name of Walker’s daughter, Lelia Walker Robinson.
The History Twins podcast teaches that New York history is more than just dates and dead people. It’s for people interested in history, and the creative process involved in bringing history to life through performance. It is a production of Gentle Giant Music Productions. You will find more stories at CarlaandKeyes.com.
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Photo: Madam C. J. Walker’s home at 67 Broadway in Irvington NY.