Madam C. J. Walker’s Rags-to-Riches Story Found in the Holdings of the National Archives

Today’s post comes from Missy McNatt, Education Specialist at the National Archives in Washington, DC. 

 I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted from there to the washtub. Then I was promoted to the cook kitchen, and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations.

~Madam C. J. Walker addressing the National Negro Business League in Chicago, 1912
Video: Madam C.J. Walker in the National Archives

Madam C. J. Walker took the floor and introduced herself at the National Negro Business League’s 1912 convention with these words when Booker T. Washington did not include her on the podium. Five years later, through her hard work and business skills, this daughter of former slaves owned and ran the largest Black-owned company in the United States.

What can be discovered in the holdings of the National Archives about this remarkable woman?  

Madam C. J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 near Delta, Louisiana, two years after the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865. Her parents were Minerva and Owen Breedlove, and Sarah was their first child born into freedom. 

The Records of the Southern Claims Commission contains a court case filed by the heirs of R. W. Burney, owner of the plantation on which Minerva and Owen Breedlove had been enslaved. Burney’s heirs sued the federal government for timber that was used by the Union Army under Generals Ulysses Grant and William Sherman. The plantation was a staging area for the Union Army during the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi.  

In addition, there are records from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land about a camp and hospital on the plantation. Although Sarah Breedlove’s name is not specifically mentioned in either set of records, the records describe the life and conditions of her early life. 

Sarah Breedlove was orphaned at age 7 and moved across the Mississippi River to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to live with her older sister, Louvenia, and brother-in-law, Jesse Powell. At age 14, she married Moses McWilliams and had her only child, Leila McWilliams. By age 20, Breedlove was a widow. 

Searching for better opportunities, she and her daughter moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to live near her older brothers, who worked as barbers. This change of address can be verified by the 1900 census, in which Madam Walker appears as Sarah Davis, married to her second husband, John Davis. Living with them is her daughter, Lellia (spelling from the 1900 census) McWilliams. 

In St. Louis, Sarah worked as a laundress, sometimes earning as little $1.00 a day, yet was determined to ensure her daughter was educated. Then a series of events occurred that took her on a different path. She learned about hair care from her barber brothers, and she suffered from hair ailments including baldness. Looking for hair products to cure her hair aliments, she discovered the hair products of Annie Malone, an African American hair care entrepreneur. Sarah worked for Annie Malone, and it wasn’t long before she developed her own hair care products.  

In 1905, Sarah married Charles Joseph Walker and became known as Madam C. J. Walker based on the name of the hair products she developed. She and her husband worked together to market the hair products and hair care system. Madam Walker can be found in the 1910 census living in Indianapolis married to Charles J. Walker. The occupation listed for both of them is manufacturer and the type of industry is listed as ‘hair goods.’ They couple eventually divorced.

Madam C. J. Walker worked closely with her daughter, Lelia (later A’Lelia) Walker to grow the business, and one way to do that was through foreign sales. Her application for a passport in 1913 shows her clear signature, Sarah Walker. There were no photographs on passports in the early 20th century, but from the physical description we learn she was just 5 feet tall. Madam Walker is listed on a ship’s manifest returning from Cuba to the United States in 1914.  

As Madam Walker’s wealth grew, so did her interest in political activism and philanthropy. In the holdings of the National Archives we can discover the evidence of her activism. 

The first is a letter Madam Walker wrote to Emmett Scott, the Special Assistant for Negro Affairs to the Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker. Scott was the highest-ranking African American in the Woodrow Wilson administration. In the letter, she first congratulates Emmett Scott “for the honor conferred upon you and our race at this most Crucial moment of our existence.” 

She then makes clear how important Scott is in the struggle for civil rights: “You are now in position to become the ‘Moses’ of our race, to lead us out of the darkness into the light of true womanhood and manhood and I believe you will do your duty without fear or favor.”  

Although not found in the holdings of the National Archives, another example of Madam Walker’s activism can be found in a petition to President Wilson. In 1917, Madam Walker and members of the Committee of the Negro Silent Protest Parade petitioned President Woodrow Wilson and Congress: “We ask, therefore, that lynching and mob violence be made a national crime punishable by the laws of the United States and this be done by federal enactment, or if necessary, by constitutional amendment.” 

Finally, from the Department of the Interior, National Park Service and the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, is information about Madam Walker’s palatial home, Villa Lewaro, on a five-acre site in Irvington-on-the-Hudson, New York. 

Villa Lewaro was completed in 1918. Madam Walker entertained some of the country’s most influential people of both races. Enrico Caruso, the great Italian opera tenor, named the home Villa Lewaro. Lewaro was derived from the first two letters of Madam Walker’s daughter, Lelia Walker Robinson, name. Villa Lewaro is an example of early Italian Renaissance style, hence the term, Villa. Villa Lewaro was designed by the African-A merican architect, Vertner Tandy.

As noted in the National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form: “The architectural significance of Villa Lewaro is tied inextricably to race pride. . . . When asked by her guests why she’d built the house, Madam Walker once responded that it was not for her, but for her people in order to see what could be accomplished, no matter what their background.”

Learn more about Madam C. J. Walker in The National Archives Comes Alive: Young Learner’s Program, and meet Madam Walker, portrayed by Dr. Daisy Century, actor, historian, interpreter, and reenactor:

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