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Madame C J Walker

Madame Walker fashioned an empire

Sherri Winston by Sherri Winston, published March 28, 2001 in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

Madame C.J. Walker. Do you know who she is?

For the casual history buff, the answer may spring easily. "She's the first black woman millionaire in America."

Many may even know that she made her million selling hair-care products for black women. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, the Southern washerwoman-turned-inventor went from the abject poverty of America's Reconstruction Era, to building herself an empire.

Madame Walker invented the hot comb, which could straighten black women's hair and revolutionize how we tended to our appearance.

Since childhood, I've been fascinated with Madame Walker. Although books on her were rare, most illustrations showed a woman with a sturdy frame and an elegant stature. A woman with full features and a face round like mine.

Over the years, attempts to find out more about the entrepreneur proved frustrating. The most I could find were histories written for juveniles.

Recently, I came across The Black Rose (Ballentine, $14), a fictionalized history about the life of Madame Walker that came out in paperback in January. Author Tananarive Due, a former South Florida resident, offers a vivid, memorable journey through Walker's fields of poverty to the industry of hope.

What elevates Due's novel, however, is the source of her information. Roots author and historical legend Alex Haley began researching the life and times of Sarah Breedlove Walker before his death but never had the opportunity to use his findings.

"I got a call from my agent saying the Haley estate would like to talk to me about doing a book based on Alex Haley's research. When the Haley estate calls, you take note," Due says during a phone interview from her home in Long View, Wash.

"The Haley name was magical to me. I read Roots when I was a kid. I was really captivated by Roots. Not only his story so much as the hunger it awakened in me. It was inspirational how Alex Haley was able to trace himself back to the motherland," Due says.

Due, whose previous fiction, including My Soul To Keep, dealt with the supernatural, says historical fiction was a departure. Like any good journalist, she began to research Madame Walker. "Like you, all I found were juvenile books," she says.

Even so, she read enough to know the basics. And the basics intrigued her.

Me, too.

Madame Walker's is the ultimate story of survival and beating the odds. She was born into the first generation of post-slavery blacks and her parents, Minerva and Owen Breedlove, were poor and poorer. She was uneducated and socially unacceptable. She had every reason in the world to fail. Sarah would go on to marry, first at 14, only to lose that husband to racial violence. But her marriage to C.J. Walker, a man who owned a newspaper and had business savvy, proved pivotal to her success.

"Life was hard for a lot of folks back then," Due says. "The stories are all basically the same -- heartache and poverty. Still, I was most surprised by how much she overcame.

"She didn't even start with nothing. She started with less than nothing. Starting with nothing would be to at least have one parent. She had no money. Her parents died when she was young. What's amazing about her was that she was so determined."

Sarah Walker was the first American woman to sell products through the mail, the first to organize door-to-door sellers. At a time when the Klan was instrumental in spreading hate propaganda and lynching was as common as dandruff, Walker managed to educate laundresses and domestics on how to use her products, sell her products and liberate themselves from an economic system designed to keep them down.

Although Due's latest book, The Living Blood (My Soul To Keep's sequel), arrives in stores April 3, she says completing The Black Rose will always remain as a highlight in her career.

"I learned that my father's mother was trained by the Walker school," she says. "I'd known she was a beautician, but I didn't know she was trained with the Madame Walker products."

I've always loved the hope, the promise that lies beneath Madame C.J. Walker's history. The Black Rose delivers her story with freshness and vitality.

"She decided to fashion this life for herself out of dust," Due says.

For women, Madame Walker represents the promise in us all.

Sherri Winston's column appears on Wednesdays in Lifestyle. She can be reached at 954-356-4108 or

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Click here for more about Sherri Winston.

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