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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.

Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theatre. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora last spring. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They’ve recently secured a protective easement for the site, which prevents future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker.

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted television show about her life, which is based on a biography by Bundles and is allegedly courting distribution by Netflix.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

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Courtesy Daniel Guggisberg ©, used with permission.
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Retrobituaries
Caroline Weldon, 19th Century Indigenous Rights Advocate and Sitting Bull's Secretary
The only known photograph of Caroline Weldon (seated), taken in 1915 with her friend Aline Estoppey
The only known photograph of Caroline Weldon (seated), taken in 1915 with her friend Aline Estoppey
Courtesy Daniel Guggisberg ©, used with permission.

It was December 15, 1890 and Sitting Bull was dead. The Indian police who had shot and killed him earlier that day were tearing through his cabins when they found two of the chief's wives and several other women hiding his son under a mattress, a portrait of the dead Hunkpapa Lakota leader hanging on the wall. Though they had been ordered not to touch anything, one of the policemen tore the painting down, using his rifle to smash the frame and his fist to punch a hole in the canvas. Lieutenant Matthew F. Steele, a cavalry member among those sent to assist the policemen, wrestled the painting—done, he later recalled, by a "Mrs. Weldon, a woman from the East"—away before it could be destroyed completely. Steele bought the painting from Sitting Bull's wives for $2 and kept it for six decades, donating it to the State Historical Society of North Dakota in 1953.

But who was the “Mrs. Weldon” who had journeyed all the way from the East to the Standing Rock Reservation to paint it? As in Steele's recollection, she is often a footnote to history—treated like a passing phantom when mentioned at all. Yet Caroline Weldon is worth remembering as an activist who set out alone to try and help Sitting Bull and his people. While her story as a white woman attempting to guide indigenous affairs is not uncomplicated, what she did was rare both in terms of 19th century activism and for a single woman in the Victorian era. Her courage is reflected in the nickname the Sioux gave her: “Woman Walking Ahead."

Sitting Bull, 1881
Sitting Bull, 1881
O.S. Goff/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The woman who would become Caroline Weldon was born Susanna Karolina Faesch in a suburb of Basel, Switzerland, in 1844. Her parents divorced when she was almost 5 years old, and she arrived in the United States with her mother in the 1850s. She grew up in Brooklyn, where she eventually married a fellow Swiss named Claudius Bernhard Schlatter. It was an unhappy marriage—at one point she left him for another man—and they divorced in 1883.

As she "struggled to endure her loveless marriage," Eileen Pollack writes in her book Woman Walking Ahead, the budding activist immersed herself in reading about the news of the West, particularly Sitting Bull’s leadership of the Sioux in Standing Rock. After her divorce, she joined the National Indian Defense Association (NIDA), formed by activist Dr. Thomas Bland with his wife Cora in response to the controversial Dawes Act. The act, passed in 1887, broke up indigenous land into individual allotments—often seen as a key step in the federal government's forced assimilation of Native Americans. It was sometime in the 1880s, according to researcher Daniel Guggisberg, that she also invented a new name for herself: Caroline Weldon. By then, she'd also had a son, named Christie, out of wedlock.

In 1889, accompanied only by Christie, Weldon left Brooklyn and went west to offer her support of Sitting Bull’s opposition to the Dawes Act in person. Although Sitting Bull had been well-known as a commander at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, by the 1880s, aside from a stint with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, his life was confined to the Standing Rock reservation. When Weldon arrived in June of 1889, he was suffering from a near-fatal bout of pneumonia.

For several months after arriving at Standing Rock, Weldon acted as Sitting Bull’s secretary. She also painted four portraits of him, and offered financial support to him and his family, drawing on a small inheritance from her mother. Weldon would later describe her impression of Sitting Bull: "As a friend […] sincere and true, as a patriot devoted and incorruptible. As a husband and father, affectionate and considerate. As a host, courteous and hospitable to the last degree.”

And while Sitting Bull seems to have appreciated her actions, not everyone did. Indian Agent James McLaughlin—one of the individuals authorized to interact with Native American tribes on behalf of the U.S. government, and who would order Sitting Bull’s fatal arrest—openly detested Weldon for her meddling. The press was also unkind, calling her “Sitting Bull’s white squaw.” One 1889 headline in the Bismarck Weekly Tribune crowed: "A New Jersey Widow Falls Victim to Sitting Bull's Charms.”

But any cooperation between Weldon and Sitting Bull would be interrupted by the dawn of the Ghost Dance in the Dakotas. The movement was sparked by a Paiute man named Wovoka, who prophesied in 1889 that the circular dance would help return the dead to the land of the living, where they would fight and force the white people off the land they'd stolen before uniting the indigenous people in peace. At a time when the Dawes Act was dividing ancestral land, and after decades of federal genocide, the Ghost Dance quickly became a phenomenon.

Weldon correctly assessed that Sitting Bull’s participation in the Ghost Dance would be used to arrest or kill him; she incorrectly perceived the spread of the dance as a Mormon plot. (The Mormons had been active in attempting to convert indigenous people as they moved into western land in the 1800s.) The growing tension around Weldon’s advocacy against the dance eventually led to her expulsion from the reservation.

She pled in a letter addressed to "My Dakotas": "Your dead friends will not come back to you. Save your money and take care of the living.” According to Ian Frazier in his 1989 book Great Plains, Sitting Bull tried proposing marriage to her—an attempt she rebuffed. She "finally left Sitting Bull's camp in disgust," and Sitting Bull drove her to the nearby town of Cannonball in his wagon.

The final years of Weldon's life were bleak. Only a month before Sitting Bull was killed on December 15, 1890, her son died of an infection. After spending some time in Kansas City, she came home to Brooklyn, falling into obscurity as the years went on. One night in 1921, a candle caught her apartment on fire, and she died on March 15 from her burns. Today, she’s buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, near an obelisk marked Valentiny, her stepfather’s name.

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Christine Granville, World War II Special Agent
Christine Granville circa 1950
Christine Granville circa 1950
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Allies’ success in World War II owes a great debt to the women who outfoxed, out-shot, and outran their male counterparts across the globe. Perhaps most intriguing of these women, although little-known today, is Christine Granville, the Polish-born daughter of a ne’er-do-well count and a Jewish mother, whose real-life romantic entanglements, fearless sorties, and close escapes are enough for reams of dramatic stories.

Born Krystyna Skarbek in Warsaw in 1908 to an aristocratic, but broke, family of Polish nobility on her father’s side and a successful, but socially limited, Jewish banking family on her mother’s side, Christine, as she later came to be known, seemed destined to be able to handle whatever situation life threw at her. Likeable, beautiful, and driven by a strong sense of fun, she used her resources before the war to become an expert equestrian, a top-notch skier, and even a national beauty queen.

But her ancestry meant she would never quite fit in. According to Clare Mulley, the author of a biography about Granville called The Spy Who Loved, it would be this outsider foundation that later drove Granville to accomplish great things. As Mulley explained to Mental Floss, “although beautiful and well-connected, her mother had been born Jewish, and Christine was never fully accepted in the higher echelons of Polish society.”

The Nazi invasion of Poland in the fall of 1939 was, of course, a game-changer. Trapped in London with her diplomat husband, Jerzy Giżycki, and desperate to help the war effort in any way she could, Granville found a contact in the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and pressed herself into service. She became Britain's first—and longest-serving—female special agent during World War II. Her facility for languages, her intelligence, and her calm under pressure all proved to be great assets in her espionage work, as she made her way in and out of Nazi-held territories. Even her long-time interest in skiing proved useful, allowing her to sneak into war-torn Poland by traversing the mountains just ahead of enemy soldiers.

Along the way there would be close calls, romantic intrigues, and triumphs that would become the stuff of spy novels. These included her escape from a Gestapo interrogation by faking a case of tuberculosis: Spies had been informed that Germans were terrified of catching the contagious disease, so Granville simply manufactured some symptoms during her detention by biting her tongue until it bled and then “coughing up” blood in the presence of her captors. Afraid to have someone in her condition in their custody, she was promptly let go and returned to her spying duties.

According to Mulley, Christine had one particularly impressive feat among her many accomplishments. “Christine became legendary within SOE [Britain's Special Operations Executive] for her single-handed rescue of three fellow agents from Gestapo prison, just hours before they were due to be shot in July 1944. One of the men was her lover, Francis Cammaerts, the leader of SOE in the south west of France, who went on to help coordinate French resistance support for the Allied troops arriving to liberate occupied France from the south.”

Active in no less than three theaters of war, Granville survived six years of dangerous fieldwork in an occupation where the average life span was six weeks. As a reward, she was decorated by both Britain and France. Sadly, however, her story ends with a twist that would put even writers like John le Carré to shame. She was killed by a man whose romantic overtures she spurned. As Mulley explains, “Christine met her untimely end in a south London hotel in 1952. Her murderer claimed that ‘to kill is the final possession.’ He was wrong. Nobody possessed Christine, not her father, not either of her husbands, and none of her many lovers. If anything, she was possessed by her drive for freedom.”

Her legacy, even if little-known and under-sung, endures. Thought to have inspired at least two of James Bond author Ian Fleming’s characters (the author never met her, but he may have heard of her exploits through his own MI5 contacts), Granville remains a figure who deserves further exploration. Mulley argues that she deserves more than the sensationalist treatment of paperbacks and action movies, adding that “her legacy lies in her inspirational example of a Pole fighting for Britain and her countries’ allies, and as a woman serving so effectively behind enemy lines. All too often women in the resistance are presented in romantic terms, as brave and beautiful. Christine had both these qualities, but she also made a hugely significant contribution to the Allied war effort."

A version of this article originally ran in 2016.

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