Who Was the First Black Millionairess?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Even if you know the answer, you don't know the whole story.

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Madam C.J. Walker (A'Lelia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Collection)

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

(The Root) -- Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 37: Who was the first black American woman to be a self-made millionaire?

A Different Kind of Holiday

In last week's column, we explored African Americans' search for a holiday to rally around in remembrance of slavery and the hopes that freedom brought. Yet I must admit, having grown up in the 1950s watching my mother do other women's hair in our kitchen -- the blue Bergamot ointment, the gas stove, the hot comb, the peculiar smell of what I think of as "de-kinkalation" -- I used to have a different kind of holiday in mind, a strand of thought that only strengthened with time. As I explained in my memoir, Colored People, "So many black people still get their hair straightened that it's a wonder we don't have a national holiday for Madame C.J. Walker, who invented the process for straightening kinky hair, rather than for Dr. King." I was joking, of course, but mostly about the holiday; the history and politics of African-American hair have been as charged as any "do" in our culture, and somewhere in the story, Madam C.J. Walker usually makes an appearance. 

Most people who've heard of her will tell you one or two things: She was the first black millionairess, and she invented the world's first hair-straightening formula and/or the hot comb. Only one is factual, sort of, but the amazing story behind it and how Madam Walker used that accomplishment to help others as a job creator and philanthropist might be jarring -- and surprisingly empowering -- even to the skeptics. I know it was for me in revisiting her life for this column.

Thanks to the work of numerous historians, among them Madam Walker's prolific great-granddaughter, A'Lelia Bundles, as well as Nancy Koehn and my colleagues at Harvard Business School, I no longer see one straight line from "Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower" to current menus of extensions, braids and weaves; nor do I see a single line connecting this brilliant, determined person -- who struggled doggedly for a life out of poverty, and for black beauty, pride and her own legitimacy (in the face of black male resistance) as a black business woman during the worst of the Jim Crow era -- to the most successful black women on the stage today.

"Up From" Sarah Breedlove

On December 23, 1867, Sarah Breedlove was born to two former slaves on a plantation in Delta, La., just a few months after the second Juneteenth was celebrated one state over in Texas. While the rest of her siblings had been born on the other side of emancipation, Sarah was free. But by 7, she was an orphan toiling in those same cotton fields. To escape her abusive brother-in-law's household, Sarah married at 14, and together she and Moses McWilliams had one daughter, Lelia (later "A'Lelia Walker"), before Moses mysteriously died.

Now that Reconstruction, too, was dead in the South, Sarah moved north to St. Louis, where a few of her brothers had taken up as barbers, themselves having left the Delta as "exodusters" some years before. Living on $1.50 a day as a laundress and cook, Sarah struggled to send Lelia to school -- and did -- while joining the A.M.E. church, where she networked with other city dwellers, including those in the fledgling National Association of Colored Women.

In 1894, Sarah tried marrying again, but her second husband, John Davis, was less than reliable, and he was unfaithful. At 35, her life remained anything but certain. "I was at my tubs one morning with a heavy wash before me," she later told the New York Times. "As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds, 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?' "

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