One of the forgotten heroes of American history is Sarah Breedlove, a.k.a. Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919). Ever heard of her?
After suffering from a scalp disorder that resulted in her losing much of her own hair, Madam Walker created her own specialized hair care products in 1905 and sold them door-to-door. She was an entrepreneur, who established Mme. C.J.Walker Laboratories and Mme. C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and who, in time, established the first black-owned business in America, which caused her to become the first self-made, female millionaire in America.
As she would tell her employees, “…You don’t have to define yourself by your current station in life but only by your vision of who you can become. Today, you see a success. And I hear many of you say, ‘But, Madam Walker, I just don’t have the opportunities you had.” And I respond, ‘Really?’ I was the first freeborn in my family. Orphaned at age seven. Married at fourteen and widowed with child by twenty. I’m 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. From there, I promoted myself to the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground. I got my start by giving myself a start. There is no royal flower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I haven’t found it. If I’ve accomplished anything in my life it’s because I was willing to work hard. You can do something new today. And don’t be too haughty. You can always go to that washtub for a seat.”
She also said, “I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
What an incredible African-American success story! What a remarkable American story! In a way, she sounds just like Dr. Martin Luther King, who said, “Every man must write with his own hand the charter of his own Emancipation Proclamation.” This amazing women was inspired by Booker T. Washington, who “called for black people to lift themselves up by developing skills, working hard, and emphasizing good character” (PBS). As a result, Walker “transcended poverty, illiteracy, and prejudice to become one of the most important businesswomen in America” (PBS). And, moreover, she used her success to bless thousands of people with jobs and donated a great deal of her profits to organizations that worked to improve countless lives all over America.
Unfortunately, this remarkable woman is left out of the history books. Why? Because she proves that self-determination, personal responsibility, hard work, perseverance, and character breed success in a free society. And the values she lived then can still be lived today. All of us, in America, are a minority of one and how we succeed or fail depends on our own efforts. The choice, as always, is ours.
As Booker T. Washington once said, “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. Out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race.”
Written by Joel Killion