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Once upon a time, there was an inventor and entrepreneur named Madam C.J. Walker. She was the child of slaves, the first in her family to be born free, thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation. As a child, she had to work in the cotton fields to help support her family. Later, as a teenaged orphan, she became a washerwoman, backbreaking work considered one of the worst and most difficult jobs a woman could have.
But she dreamed of more — for herself and her daughter. When, due to an illness, her hair began to fall out, she created a hair care regimen specifically for African-American women. It worked! She crisscrossed the country going door to door to sell her products and eventually built a beauty empire with sales representatives in every state. The formula grew to be so popular she became the first self-made female millionaire in America, and her products are still for sale today.
Poorna Jagannathan is an actress and the producer of “Nirbhaya” (‘Fearless’), the critically-acclaimed play written and directed by Yael Farber. Based on real-life events, the play breaks the silence around sexual violence and was called by The Telegraph as one of the “most powerful pieces of theater you’ll ever see.”
Jagannathan gained international recognition for her portrayal of a journalist in the 2011 Bollywood film “Delhi Belly” and has appeared as series regular on HBO’s “The Night Of” and Netflix’s “Gypsy.” She is currently a member of the ensemble cast of HBO’s “Room 104,” created by the Duplass brothers.
Once upon a time, on a cotton plantation in Louisiana, a girl named Sarah was born. <MUSIC CUE>
Sarah came into the world in a one-room cabin at the edge of the plantation’s cotton fields. Her family lived in Delta – a tiny town, nestled in a sharp curve of the Mississippi River.
There’s no evidence of Sarah’s birth – no certificate or census record. But this little girl would grow into a woman who made sure the world knew her name.
Sarah Breedlove was the first in her family to be born free.
Her parents and her four older siblings were all born into slavery. But just two years before Sarah was born, the Civil War ended, and slavery was finally abolished.
Now, the Breedlove family was free. But that didn’t mean life was easy.
They still made their living growing and picking cotton. And they didn’t own the land they farmed on, so they had to share their small income with the man who did.
They worked long hours in the blistering Louisiana heat, and taking time off was not an option.
So when Sarah was a baby, her mother would strap her to her back and take Sarah into the fields with her. As soon as she was four years old, Sarah went to work alongside her parents in the fields. She crouched down to make holes in a long line and dropped cotton seeds in each one, the sun beating down on her tiny back.
Just a few years later, she was doing the same work as the grownups.
Sarah and her friend Celeste bragged that they could chop and pick cotton clean faster than anyone else.
Because the sooner they were done, the sooner they could slip away to catch crawfish in the bayou, where long moss swayed in the trees above.
On the weekends, the Breedloves would get together with other families for rowdy fish frys and picnic outings. And every Sunday, the girls would sit next to each on the long wooden pews at church with matching hairstyles – their hair worked into tight twists and wrapped with string.
But when Sarah was seven, everything changed.
Her mother died.
And soon, her father was out of the picture too – whether he died or just skipped town, we can’t say for sure.
Suddenly, Sarah was an orphan. And she had to fend for herself.
I’m POORNA JAGANNATHAN. This is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. A fairy tale podcast about the extraordinary women who inspire us.
This week: Madam C.J. Walker.
<END THEME MUSIC>
ORPHANED / FIRST LAUNDRESS JOB
With no parents to care for her, Sarah depended entirely on her siblings.
She went to live with her older sister Louvenia, who was married to a man named Jesse Powell. But Sarah didn’t find a loving home with them. Jesse was a cruel man.
To him, Sarah was just another mouth to feed. And he expected her to earn her keep. So, when Sarah turned ten, she started working as a laundress.
She spent her days in the homes of strangers, washing laundry by hand in big wooden tubs. She’d spend hours elbow-deep in hot water, using harsh soaps that left her skin raw and irritated.
It was such back-breaking work that people with any money at all simply refused to do it. Sarah, on the other hand, had no choice.
If she hadn’t been born in a place where racism and cruelty were the norm, she would have been in the fourth grade by now. Learning multiplication tables and state capitals by heart. And maybe discovering the joy of a good book.
But there was little time for fun in Sarah’s life now. When she got home at night, it was all she could do to get ready for bed. She’d fall asleep as soon as she closed her eyes.
MOSES / LELIA
By the time Sarah was fourteen, she was desperate to escape.
She wanted a home of her own. She wanted to go to school, and travel to Paris, and see famous artwork, and listen to the music of great orchestras in Carnegie Hall.
Sarah promised herself that her dreams would not sink in a wooden washtub. So, she found a way out.
She ran away with a man named Moses McWilliams. And, though Moses would soon leave her a widow, he left her something else too… a daughter.
Sarah gave birth to Lelia when she was just seventeen.
Sarah loved Lelia and she wanted her to go to school and learn all of the things that she’d missed out on.
So she decided to move her tiny family – just her and Lelia – to St. Louis, Missouri. There, she could be closer to her three older brothers, who were making good money as barbers.
<MUSIC INTERLUDE AND SOUND DESIGN>
Sarah had no trouble finding work as a laundress in St. Louis. And even though she struggled to make more than a buck fifty a day, it was enough to cover rent.
Sarah and Lelia’s new home was a tiny apartment – just a room really – in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city. But it was theirs.
<SLOW MUSIC FADE OUT>
Lelia was going to school and Sarah started taking night classes. They were getting by. But in quiet moments, when she was alone, Sarah worried about the future.
She started dating a man named Charles J. Walker, C.J. for short. And even though he was a newspaper ad salesman, he was far from being rich. They planned on getting married soon, but Sarah didn’t see how this would change much for her.
One morning, Sarah sat bent over her washboard with a huge load of laundry in the tub in front of her. She stared down at her arms, buried in soap suds. And she asked herself:
“What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who’s going to take care of your little girl?”
She couldn’t see how she, “a poor washerwoman,” was going to make a better life for herself or her daughter.
But soon, everything would change…
Not long after moving to St. Louis, Sarah started to notice something weird… Strands of her hair were everywhere: her pillow, her dresses, her kitchen table.
She was losing hair at an alarming rate!
Now, this wasn’t an unusual problem at the time, especially for women as poor as Sarah. Most of them didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, so taking baths was a special occasion. Being stressed and not having enough to eat only made things worse.
Sarah tried everything she could think of, but none of it helped. She loved her thick, black hair and she was desperate for a way to keep it.
Fortunately, there was a woman in St. Louis named Annie Turnbo Malone who sold hair products for women with the same problems as Sarah. She tried Annie’s products—and they worked!
In fact, they worked so well, that Sarah took a job as a saleswoman for the company. She learned how to treat women’s hair with shampoos, scalp massages and special brushes.
Little did Annie know that Sarah was about to become her biggest rival… Because Sarah had decided it was time to go into business for herself.
One night, she knelt at the side of the rickety bed she shared with Lelia. And she prayed. As Sarah tells it, her prayer was answered with a dream…
While she slept, she says, “a black man” came to her and told her exactly which ingredients to mix together to heal scalps and grow hair – even better than Turnbo’s products could.
Sarah woke up the next day and set out to find all of the ingredients she’d dreamt of. She combined them in her kitchen and rubbed the mixture into her scalp. In a few weeks, she says her hair was “coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”
Soon, Sarah’s friends wanted to try too, and her elixir worked just as well for them.
For a moment, Sarah glimpsed a different future – one that didn’t involve washboards and soapsuds and back aches.
And she didn’t think twice.
<DRIVING MUSIC CUE>
GOING INTO BUSINESS
Sarah rented out a tiny attic so she had enough space to mix tubs of her own hair-growing formula.
And she started advertising in local papers. A reporter for the Kansas City Star later wrote that “as fast as she earned a little money, she spent it on advertising… spending more on printers’ ink in the beginning than she spent on bread and butter.”
And it was working!
Because there were many African American women like Sarah – desperate for hair products designed specifically for them.
Sarah’s ads ran in newspapers for some six months straight. And then… they stopped. <SUDDEN MUSIC PAUSE>
Suddenly, there wasn’t a single line from Sarah in the local newspapers. She’d gone radio silent.
But after a few months… a new ad appeared. This one was for Madam C.J. Walker. <RESUME MUSIC, MORE PLAYFUL AND DRIVING>
Sarah was rebranding.
She’d finally married C.J. Walker, so she took his name. And her new title, Madam, was a nod to the French beauty industry, and the sophistication she wanted to recreate for African American women in the U.S.
Before long, Sarah’s hair grower was selling so well that she decided it was time to hit the road and take her products to other cities.
Her new husband and friends told her she was jumping in too quickly. They couldn’t see how she’d be able to cover her expenses to get from one town to another.
Luckily, she didn’t listen.
CREATING AN EMPIRE
She set off with suitcases full of her new product – Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.
She crisscrossed the country by train, making contacts and finding new customers in every city she visited.
Madam’s demonstrations were convincing, and many of the women she spoke to placed orders to get their own bottles of Hair Grower. Back at home, Lelia received the orders, ran to the post office and mailed the products to women all over the country.
Their customers were more than satisfied. Because Madam wasn’t trying to make them look like the beauty icons of the day – white women with straight, wispy hair.
She wanted to make their hair look beautiful in the way that only black hair could.
Many of Madam C. J. Walker’s customers were using hair products made specifically for their hair for the first time in their lives.
A woman from Helena, Arkansas wrote Madam to tell her that she was a “god-send to humanity.” Another woman from Dallas, Texas wrote to say: “My hair [is] the talk of the town… I have to take it down to let people see and feel it for themselves.”
Soon, they were getting so many orders that they could not keep up! Madam’s little start-up was turning into a real company.
She started hiring sales agents in cities across the country. Their numbers were growing every day.
At the same time, Madam’s relationship with her husband was becoming strained. He was unfaithful, and now that the business was booming, they fought about how to handle it.
Madam had always been in charge and she intended to keep it that way.
When she bought a brick building in Indiana – to be her factory, laboratory and salon – it had just one name on it: hers.
Before long, they parted ways for good. But Madam decided to keep the name C.J. Walker. Because of her, it had become famous.
Just five years after she’d struck out on her own, Madam had customers and sales agents in nearly every state.
ACTIVISM & PHILANTHROPY
And Madam had become rich.
Even though she loved nice clothes and art and fancy cars, she had bigger plans for her money.
She wanted to help people in her community – black people who were struggling to get by like she had. After all, it wasn’t long ago that she had washed laundry and picked cotton.
And even though slavery was over, a lot of things had stayed exactly the same. Almost every day in the newspapers, there were stories of horrible violence against black men and women. In 1915, 69 African-Americans were lynched across the country.
And Madam wanted to do something about it.
Her business advisors and friends told her that politics and business don’t mix. That it was risky to get involved in these matters.
But again, Madam didn’t listen.
She donated to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund and even went to Washington, D.C. with a group of other black activists to tell President Wilson that lynchings had to be stopped.
She was so outspoken about what was going wrong in the country that the government added her to a list of what they called “Negro subversives,” and they kept her under surveillance.
But she got involved in smaller causes too. She donated money to churches, to schools, to community centers. And she wanted her sales agents – now numbering in the thousands – to follow her lead.
So she started an annual conference where the women could get together and talk about their work. Madam awarded prizes, not just to the agents with the highest sales, but also to those who had raised the most money for charities.
INCREDIBLE SUCCESS / RETURN HOME
By 1915, Madam’s annual sales were over $100,000 – that’s around two million in today’s dollars.
And even though she had everything she could possibly want – what she really loved was running her company.
In October 1917, she was on a business trip through the South when she made a stop in Vicksburg, the city where she’d worked her first job as a laundress at the age of ten. Just across the river from Delta, where she was born.
Her old church in Vicksburg had invited her back to give a lecture. And she agreed. <BUILDING MUSIC CUE>
She stood at the pulpit and looked out at the congregation. It was a full house, everyone crowded into the same hard pews she’d sat on forty years ago.
She told them how she’d worked her way from being a poor laundress, to being a powerful entrepreneur and activist.
They hung on every word.
She was the first woman – black or white – to become a self-made millionaire in the history of the country.
<END MUSIC CUE WITH STING & BEAT>