Earlier this week Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens here in Washington, D.C. held a fascinating event on the legacy of legendary American entrepreneur and civil rights activist Madam C.J. Walker. Born into a family of formerly enslaved people in 1867, she founded and built a company specializing in hair care products that eventually made her a millionaire and international celebrity. Her army of mostly female sales representatives covered the United States and Caribbean and Latin American territories decades before Mary Kay distributors started driving their pink Cadillacs on American highways.
Author and journalist A’Lelia Bundles, author of multiple books about Walker, including On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, delivered an engaging presentation on business and social history in the United States and some of the obstacles Walker overcame on her way to the top. The company Walker founded lived far beyond her own untimely death at the age of 51 in 1919, eventually becoming part of Sundial Brands, which was itself sold to personal care giant Unilever in 2017.
The stories of Walker’s success, and the business success of other early African American entrepreneurs, while they should be much more widely known, have received some welcome attention over the years (in addition to Bundles) from historians, business writers, and people like philosophy professor Andrew Bernstein. In 2001 he wrote the fascinating article “Black Innovators and Entrepreneurs Under Capitalism” for the Foundation for Economic Education:
Madame Walker’s is one of the most inspiring and (unfortunately) little-known American rags-to-riches stories. But hers is not the only example of black entrepreneurs’ capitalizing on America’s late-nineteenth-century freedom to prosper. Some black businesses established in that era have been successfully run by the same families for generations. In 1883, 19-year-old C. H. James started a business in West Virginia by bartering household goods for vegetables and then selling the produce for cash. His business gradually grew from one wagon to a department store on wheels that sold cotton, threads, pots, sugar, and other goods. Catering to predominantly white coal miners, James built his business on the explicitly held principles of dependability, integrity, and a warm personality. By 1918 his company had become the largest wholesale food distributor in the state, with sales in excess of $350,000 a year.
Now, however, we all have an excellent opportunity to learn more about the world of early African American business leaders with the new television series ”Self Made” from Netflix. Based on Bundles’s biography and featuring a list of executive producers including LeBron James, the series will star Octavia Spencer as Walker and Tiffany Haddish as her daughter Lelia. As an old “L.A. Law” fan, I’m also looking forward to seeing Blair Underwood as the famous woman’s third husband and eventual namesake, Charles James Walker. Set a reminder to yourself to stream on March 20.