Helping Women Learn the Trade
Not only did Madam C.J. Walker sell products, but she also gave lectures and demonstrated her Walker Method. In turn, these ladies became beauty agents and sold Madam Walker’s products on her behalf. They, too, taught the Walker Method.
The Walker Method promoted hair growth for women, especially African-Americans, through the application of her conditioning products. The proven system included shampoo and a pomade. Brushing and heating the hair with iron combs was a strenuous process.
This plan directly increased the company’s sales because brittle hair became not only manageable but also soft and luxurious. By 1908, the Walkers moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, opened a factory, a beauty parlor, and founded Lelia College to train hair culturists and sales agents.
Two years later, they relocated once again to keep up with the growing business. This time it was Indianapolis, Indiana and the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company headquarters were established.
The once Sarah Breedlove, the first free birth in her family, now had her own factory, hair salon, laboratory, and beauty school. Her business flourished, and she was wildly successful. She was making huge profits that would be equivalent to millions of dollars in today’s modern world.
The sales beauticians of Indianapolis were known as Walker Agents. They were well-known and popular throughout black communities all over the United States.
The Walker brand became associated with cleanliness and loveliness. Madam Walker did this purposefully to help advance the status of African-Americans.
Giving Back to the Community
She took this concept one step further and became a civil rights activist. As an innovator of her time, Madam Walker established and organized clubs and conventions to recognize not only business and sales but philanthropic and educational endeavors for African-Americans also.
The wealthier she became, the more vocal she was about her views. In 1912, she spoke at the annual gather of the National Negro Business League (NNBL).
From the convention floor, she addressed the crowd declaring, “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.” The following year, she was the keynote speaker.
She gave the largest donation, a pledge of $1,000, by any African-American ever toward the construction of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Indianapolis in 1913.
Madam C.J. Walker took pride in employing women including Alice Kelly and Marjorie Stewart Joyner. She gladly taught them how to manage a business and promoted them to key staff positions.
The Walkers ultimately divorced in 1913. Still going by Madam Walker, she decided to travel Latin America and the Caribbean. Naturally, she promoted her business and recruited more hair culturists.
In the meantime, A’Lelia convinced her mother to purchase a house and office in Harlem, New York. After returning home in 1916, Madam Walker took over the operations in Harlem and left the daily tasks of the Indianapolis factory her management team.
While living in Harlem, Madam Walker became immersed with its social and political culture. She used her profits for charities and established philanthropists throughout the city. She donated over $100,000 to homes for the elderly, orphanages, educational scholarships, and many other programs that helped improve African-Americans opportunities.
Madam Walker regularly gave money to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Conference on Lynching. She pledged $5,000 to the organization, which equals around $65,000 in the today’s currency. At the time, she donated the largest amount of money the NAACP had ever received.
She and her daughter lived well, but they were very generous with making positive contributions. The pair managed their funds carefully to give back to churches, schools, and civil rights organizations. A’Lelia would eventually become an important woman during the Harlem Renaissance.
Nearly 20,000 women were trained by her company by 1917. They dressed in white shirts and black shirts — a distinctive uniform for the Walker Agents. Each lady also carried a black satchel as they traveled throughout cities. They sold homemade hair pomade and other products in little tin containers that featured Madam C.J. Walker’s picture.
Her prime business peak was from 1911 until 1918. During this time, she learned how important advertising was and the power of brand awareness. Madam C.J. Walker had a presence throughout the United States thanks to advertisements in black newspapers and magazines.
Her travels also contributed to her success. Her fame spread to Cuba, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Panama, and Haiti because of her Latin America excursion a few years earlier.