When an opulent, 34-room mansion went up on the banks of the Hudson River in 1917, the neighbors were worried. They didn't mind that the owner, Madame, C. J. Walker, was a successful businesswoman; they didn't mind that she came from the South or that she had once been a washerwoman.
They minded that she was black. "One of the race," a newspaper reported, "is invading the domains of New York's aristocracy." And according to The New York Times, one neighbor exclaimed, "No woman of her race could own such a place. Does she really intend to live there?"
Mme. Walker, who had made a fortune selling beauty products for black women, was unfazed. From her mansion just north of New York City, she planned to continue her mission to inspire black culture and business. With her backing, black writers, artists, and activists would go on to play a key role in the creative outpouring of the Harlem Renaissance. And with her support, thousands of working-class black women would become economically self-sufficient.
The Birth of a Beauty Mogul
Mme. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana cotton plantation in 1867, just two years after the abolition of slavery. As a child, she worked alongside her sharecropper parents; she was orphaned when she was seven. Determined to provide an easier life for her own daughter, she took in laundry, but always searched for a better way to make a living. One night, she later recounted, "God answered my prayer. In a dream, a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. I made up my mind I would begin to sell it."
Mme. Walker developed Vegetable Shampoo, Wonderful Hair Grower, Vanishing Cream, and other beauty products for black women. Like most beauty products of the time, which promoted white standards of beauty, Mme. Walker's products and treatments promised fairer complexions and straighter hair. At the time, explains A'Lelia Bundles, Mme. Walker's great-great granddaughter, "there was a tremendous amount of pressure [on black people] to be 'acceptable.'"
But while Mme. Walker complied with style, she didn't turn her back on her race. She funded scholarships for black students, helped support young writers, donated thousands of dollars to Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, gave money to Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, and lobbied politicians for civil rights. In 1917, she even led a group of women to Washington, D.C., to protest President Woodrow Wilson's segregation of the military.
Offering a Hand Up
Mme. Walker also offered black women a rare opportunity to get ahead. Graduates of the Walker College of Hair Culture were trained to style hair, sell Walker products, even open their own beauty salons. "I am not satisfied in making money for myself," she told a 1914 convention of the National Negro Business League. "I endeavor to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race."
By 1916, Walker employed 20,000 agents throughout the country. Women who had toiled for pennies at arduous jobs were earning more money than ever before. "You have opened up a trade for hundreds of colored women to make an honest and profitable living," a Walker College graduate wrote Mme. Walker. "They make as much in one week as a month's salary would bring from any other position they could secure."
When Walker died in 1919, her daughter A'Lelia stepped into her shoes. Almost. Although A'Lelia continued to host black intellectuals at lavish parties, she withdrew her financial support. "A'Lelia Walker did not subsidize specific writers," Ms. Bundles says, "but she provided a place for all kinds of people to gather. She was one of the few blacks who had the money to allow her to entertain in the large scale." When A'Lelia died, more than 10,000 mourners paid their respects. The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr. delivered a sermon. A mourner read, "To A'Lelia," written by Langston Hughes. The tribute was not only a farewell for A'Lelia, but a celebration of two mythic women who had styled the creative and economic accomplishments of the Harlem Renaissance.