Madam C.J. Walker organized a series of specialized hair products for African-American hair, which allegedly made her the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. One of Walker’s notable creations includes the hot comb. Although Walker’s accomplishments were truly extraordinary, there are many misconceptions regarding her history, such as being credited as the first Black, female millionaire for her alleged creation of a Black hair care line. However, those are just two fallacies that people have been beguiled by for ages.
Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1876. Walker was born into slavery but was the first to be free in her family. Walker had to tackle many obstacles in her life, however, this didn’t hinder her future success. Early in life, Walker developed a scalp disorder which caused her to suffer from massive hair loss. History taught us that it was this condition that drove Walker to experiment with hair products and use home remedies in an attempt to treat and improve her condition. This is where things get interesting and where a myth should be dispelled. Madam Walker did go on to be a major contributor to Black hair care; however, she was definitely not the inventor or original chemist. It was someone she had worked for–her first employer, Annie Turnbo Malone. So, unless you grew up or currently live in St. Louis where Malone’s business was first headquartered, you have probably never heard of her. I must admit, until a few weeks ago when my mother told me about her, I had known nothing about her either.
Annie Turnbo Malone was born in Metropolis, Illinois in 1869. She grew up in a segregated society for a large portion of her life. Living in a judgemental environment made Annie realize that the appearance of African-American women not only represented their style but their class and social level. One of the main elements of a woman’s first impression is their hair. During the 19th century, however, it was a challenge for black people to care for their hair, for many hair products were mainly made for white consumers. Annie’s observation inspired her to improve hair care and develop hair products to help women of color reach the American standard of beauty or create their own. Through years of experimentation, Malone constructed a line of products that promoted hair care and growth. After establishing a successful business, she later founded Poro College Company—a cosmetology school— in 1902. This company employed many women of color and trained them to sell Annie’s products. One of her selling agents was, in fact, Madam C.J. Walker, herself.
Madam C. J. Walker started out as Annie Turnbo Malone’s laundress, but when Turnbo decided to market her hair care products, she became one of the three sales representatives Malone hired. Like Walker, Annie Malone experienced issues with her scalp making it very difficult to use products that were created to straighten kinky hair. Back then, Black women used bacon grease, weighty oils like shortening, and butter to straighten their hair. Some would even go as far as using a mixture of lye and potatoes to achieve a European type of hair texture. These techniques were damaging to hair and scalp. This prompted Malone to experiment until she found a hair straightening formula that would not be so harmful to hair follicles and scalp. You see, Malone was a chemist in her own right, but her health challenges prevented her from finishing college like she set out to do. However, despite not having a degree and no formal training, Malone created a hair care system that would change the trajectory of the African-American hair care industry for that century and beyond. She called it Wonderful Hair Grower and used Madam CJ Walker’s face on the can for effective marketing; however, that’s what unintentionally birthed today’s misconception of the historical factoid.
Madam C.J. Walker had been the face of Wonderful Hair Grower for centuries to where her face replaced the manufacturer in people’s minds. It was also sadly discovered that she, in fact, stole the formula and name from Annie Turnbo Malone. Walker had a big personality, which she used as an advantage of becoming an extremely gifted saleswoman. Her experience coupled with the opportunity for working with Malone, afforded her the face and the platform to market and become so successful with a product that was not her own. As one would say though, “Karma has a way.”
Madam CJ Walker was not, I repeat, not, the first Black self-made millionaire. Annie Turnbo Malone was that woman. President Donald Trump confirmed this fact in his 2019 Black History Month Proclamation saying, “Annie Malone … became one of the most successful entrepreneurs in America at the turn of the century and provided opportunities for African Americans to pursue meaningful careers.” As a matter of fact, when Walker died of kidney failure at the age 51 in 1919, she had a net worth of roughly $600,000. By this time, Malone was already a millionaire, but that fact falls deaf on the ears of her many consumers who always associated Wonderful Hair Grower with the illustrious Madam Walker.