The daughter of formerly enslaved parents, Sarah Breedlove—who would become known as Madam C. J. Walker—was orphaned at seven, married at fourteen, and widowed at twenty. She spent the better part of the next two decades laboring as a washerwoman for $1.50 a week. Then—with the discovery of a revolutionary hair care formula for black women—everything changed. By her death in 1919, Walker managed to overcome astonishing odds: building a storied beauty empire from the ground up, amassing wealth unprecedented among black women, and devoting her life to philanthropy and social activism. Along the way, she formed friendships with great early-twentieth-century political figures such as Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington.
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Chapter 1: Freedom Baby CHAPTER 1 Freedom Baby
Into a time of destitution and aspiration, of mayhem and promise, Sarah Breedlove was born two days before Christmas 1867. It was a Yuletide that offered her parents, Owen and Minerva, no other gifts. An open-hearth fireplace provided the only source of warmth and light in their sloped-roof cyprus cabin. No official document recorded Sarah’s birth. No newspaper notice heralded her arrival. No lacy gown enveloped her tiny cocoa body.
To the world beyond her family’s rented plot of ground in Delta, Louisiana, Sarah was just another black baby destined for drudgery and ignorance. But to her parents, she symbolized hope. Unlike her older siblings—Louvenia, Owen, Jr., Alexander and James—Sarah had been born free just a few days shy of the Emancipation Proclamation’s fifth anniversary. Still, her parents’ lives were unlikely to change anytime soon. For the Breedloves, even hope had its limits.
Tethered to this space for more than two decades—first as slaves, then as free people—they knew what to expect from its seasonal patterns. Spring rains almost always split the levees, transforming land to sea until the floods receded from their grassless yard to reveal a soppy stew, flush with annual deposits of soil from the northern banks of the Mississippi River. Summer dry spells sucked the moist dirt until it turned to dust. Steamy autumns filled creamy-white cotton fields with swarms of sweating ebony backs, blistered feet and bloody, cracked cuticles. On a predictable cycle, wind, water and heat, then flies, mosquitoes and gnats, streamed through the slits and gaps of their rickety home.
Beyond the nearby levee, the syrupy mile-wide river formed a liquid highway, bringing news and commerce like blood transfusions from New Orleans and Natchez to the south, St. Louis and Memphis to the north. Three miles upstream and a half-hour ferry ride away in Vicksburg, black stevedores unloaded farm tools and timepieces, china and chifforobes from steamboats, then stacked their decks with honeycombs of cotton bales just hauled in from Jackson and Clinton and Yazoo City.
During the Civil War the river had also become an avenue of invasion, so central to the Confederacy’s east-west supply trains and north-south riverboats that President Abraham Lincoln declared it the “key” to winning the war. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, whose family plantation was located barely thirty river miles south of the city at Davis Bend, was equally aware of its strategic position. From atop Vicksburg’s two-hundred-foot red-clay bluffs, Confederate cannons glowered at Union gunboats and controlled this patch of the Mississippi Valley, frustrating the federal navy for more than two years until the Confederates’ decisive July 4, 1863, surrender.
Having been reduced to eating mule meat and living in caves during a forty-seven-day bombardment and siege, Vicksburg residents, and their Louisiana neighbors on the western side of the river, found their mauling hard to forget or forgive. As General Ulysses S. Grant’s blue-uniformed columns streamed triumphantly toward Vicksburg’s stalwart courthouse, thousands of freedmen cheered. But for many generations after the troops had left, the former slaves and their descendants would suffer from the federal army’s vindictive pillaging and the retaliation inflicted upon them by their former masters.
Life and living arrangements were so scrambled after the war that Owen and Minerva, both born around 1828, remained on the plantation where they had lived as Robert W. Burney’s slaves since at least 1847. Their African family origins, as well as their faces and voices, are lost to time, silenced by their illiteracy. Because the importation of slaves had been illegal since January 1, 1808—though the law was flouted for years—they had been born in the United States. Whether Burney purchased them from an auction block in Vicksburg, New Orleans or Mobile—places he frequented—will likely never be known.
Before the war, Owen and Minerva’s labor had helped make their owner a wealthy man. In 1860, a banner year for cotton in Louisiana, Burney’s “real property”—including his land and the sixty people he owned—was valued at $125,000, his personal property at $15,000. Such holdings secured his place in the top 10 percent of slave-owning Southern planters, and put him among the 30 percent who owned more than 1,000 acres.
But now, with the South defeated, the Burney fields were “growing up with weeds,” their house and farm buildings—like those of most of their neighbors—destroyed as they fled with their slaves during the first campaign against Vicksburg in 1862. Hoping never to see Union soldiers again, they had found themselves in a rented home in Morton, Mississippi, and squarely in the path of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s destructive 1864 march across that state, a prelude to his more famous 1865 swath through Georgia.
By the spring of 1865, when the Burneys returned to the peninsula where their plantation sat, the Union commanders at Vicksburg had confiscated the land for a refugee camp filled with several thousand newly freed men, women and children. “The scenes were appalling,” wrote one Freedmen’s Bureau official. “The refugees were crowded together, sickly, disheartened, dying on the streets, not a family of them all either well sheltered, clad, or fed.”
The Burney farm had also become a burial ground pocked with mass graves for hundreds of the 3,200 Union soldiers who had died of dysentery, typhoid and malaria as they kept watch over Vicksburg during the scorching summer of 1862 and the soggy winter of 1863. The troops, along with 1,200 slaves confiscated from nearby plantations, had followed a Union general’s order to excavate a canal—a kind of jugular slash through the base of the peninsula’s long neck—intended to circumvent the impenetrable hills of Vicksburg.
By late 1867, as the Breedloves awaited Sarah’s birth, all that remained of a once grand plantation were “one or two little houses or shanties near the river” and a large ditch marking the failed bypass.
Robert W. Burney was only twenty-two years old in August 1842 when he arrived with his oxen and farm implements on 167 acres of rented land in Madison Parish, Louisiana, near the Mississippi River north of Vicksburg. By the following February, when he purchased the land for a mere $1.25 an acre, he already had a small group of enslaved people at work preparing 65 acres for corn and cotton.
His personal good fortune was the result of a nationwide economic crisis that had financially strapped the previous owners. For a young man as ambitious as Burney, the uncultivated soil of the Louisiana frontier held more lucrative promise than the depleted farmland of the more heavily populated eastern United States. Overextended land speculators, ruined in the Panic of 1837, were forced to sell to men like Burney, who, unsaddled by debt, could dictate advantageous deals for modest amounts of cash. A native of Maury County, Tennessee—home of President James Knox Polk—Burney became the recipient of some of the country’s most fertile farmland, its alluvial soil so suited for long-staple cotton that it would soon become one of Louisiana’s wealthiest parishes.
In April 1846 he nearly doubled his holdings with the $300 cash purchase of 160 acres just three and a half miles south of Vicksburg, one of the busiest cotton-trading ports between St. Louis and New Orleans. This time his land abutted the water, providing direct access to passing steamboats. It was situated on a mile-and-a half-wide peninsula that jutted northeastward toward Vicksburg like a finger poised to make a point, and its picturesque panoramas earned it the name Grand View. What Burney did not plant with cotton and vegetables in this dark, fertile turf remained a virgin forest of moss-draped oak, elm and cypress. Eventually a railroad designed to link trade on the Mississippi River with the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would pierce the center of his cotton fields.
With prime property and favorable future prospects, Burney’s relative affluence made him a most eligible bachelor. In October 1846, he chose for his bride Mary Fredonia Williamson, the educated seventeen-year-old daughter of the late Russell McCord Williamson, a wealthy Mississippi landowner and delegate to the second Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1832. Williamson, who like Burney had grown up in Maury County, had been a childhood friend of the Polk boys, their families so close that one of the men he owned had assisted in the funeral of the President’s father.
Williamson also had ties to another President, Andrew Jackson, under whom he had fought as a teenager in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. In 1834, during the first year of his second term, Jackson appointed Williamson surveyor general of all public lands south of Tennessee amid the feverish Mississippi land rush for the confiscated ancestral territory of the Choctaws and Chickasaws. At least a second-generation slave owner, Williamson had no reason or incentive to quarrel with the views of President Jackson, one of the South’s largest slaveholders, on the topic of chattel labor. “Ownership,” Jackson’s biographer Robert Remini wrote, “was as American to these Jacksonians as capitalism, nationalism, or democracy.” What property Williamson possessed, he passed on to his offspring. To Mary Fredonia he bequeathed at least a dozen enslaved people, nearly doubling her husband’s holdings of human assets.
Independent of his wife’s inheritance, Burney had prospered well enough to attract the attention of Oliver O. Woodman, a Vicksburg investor who owned several businesses, including a pharmacy and a bookstore. In 1848, the two men agreed to combine their “negroes, Oxen, Corn, Farming Utensils, horses, etc.... into a copartnership.” Among the slaves Burney brought to the deal were nineteen-year-old Owen, valued at $700, and nineteen-year-old Minerva, valued at $600. At the time of the January 1, 1848, inventory, Minerva was not yet Owen’s wife and neither of them had any children.
In exchange for co-ownership of 524 additional acres, which Woodman had purchased next to Burney’s existing property, Burney agreed to manage the plantation, the goal being “to clear up and cultivate the land as fast as the timber is taken off.” The partnership found a ready market for the timber’s by-products, especially the cordwood needed by the ravenous wood-burning boilers of the steamboats and packet boats that lumbered all day and night around the corkscrew twists of the Mississippi and Louisiana shorelines.
All the profits from the enterprise were to “be invested in negroes” who were to be “kept on the place during the copartnership.” It was a small consolation in the cruel system of slavery. Burney and Woodman agreed that, “should there be any negro women with children, which are joint property, at the expiration of the copartnership, either party getting them are to take them at valuation, as children under ten years old should not be separated from the mother.”
Whether Minerva, who was a year older than Mary Fredonia, worked primarily in the fields or in the house eludes historians. But with a growing family, eventually numbering six daughters, the mistress of the house surely needed Minerva’s help. Despite having her own children, who were roughly the same age, Minerva was expected to come to Mary Fredonia’s aid whenever she was called.
By 1850, seven years after Burney’s arrival in Madison Parish, his property was valued at $10,000, a reflection of the increasing wealth of the nation’s 350,000 slaveholding families. As the slave population burgeoned, especially in Madison Parish, where blacks would come to eclipse whites nine to one, planters grew more paranoid, advocating hard-nosed control over their human property. The prospect of a literate slave population was so frightening to some that an 1830 state law had forbidden “teaching them to read and write on pain of imprisonment for one to twelve months.”
“There is among the slave population throughout the states far too much information for their own happiness and subordination,” the nearby Richmond Compiler editorialized. “Without rigid regulations and strict subordination, there is no safety.”
As late as 1860, Delta was an unincorporated village with only ten households of fewer than sixty whites as well as hundreds of slaves who were scattered over a few thousand acres. By then the Burneys, who had prospered splendidly during the previous decade, had every reason to believe their good fortune would continue. The Breedloves, who had never known freedom, had no reason to believe their luck would ever change. But by the end of the war in April 1865, nothing about their parallel worlds remained a certainty. A year later Robert Burney was dead of a stroke, overwhelmed by the daunting struggle to regain his land and his lost wealth. That November, Mary Fredonia, still nursing an infant, succumbed to cholera. Their six young daughters would spend decades untangling legal disputes over their father’s property.
For Owen, Minerva and their growing family, freedom constructed new hurdles. The scant 1866 cotton harvest was followed by an even more disastrous yield in 1867, when Madison Parish was decimated first by the worst flood in its history, then by army worms that left the cotton fields “blackened like fire had swept over them.” By winter, thousands of Louisiana farm families, stunned at their meager earnings, were starving and homeless, “having no place to go and no clothing but rags.” With the Burney family in too much disarray to monitor their balance books, at least the Breedloves had their shack. Like thousands of other indigent black families, they placed some faith in the intangible hope of full citizenship for themselves and education for their children that had come with the overthrow of the Confederacy.
During the rainy spring before Sarah Breedlove’s birth, Congress had overridden President Andrew Johnson’s veto and adopted the Reconstruction Act, dividing the postwar South into five military districts and enfranchising more than 700,000 black men—most of them newly freed slaves—throughout the eleven states of the former Confederacy. This Radical Reconstruction would last until 1877, when the Democrats orchestrated the demise of the last Southern Republican government and claimed “redemption” for all they had lost. But in August 1867 almost two-thirds of Louisiana’s 127,639 registered voters were black, and still hopeful that their first efforts at participatory democracy would deliver the dignity and political rights they craved. With emancipation, Madison Parish’s overwhelmingly black workforce also had become an overwhelmingly black electorate.
Owen, now thirty-nine, was eligible to cast the first vote of his life in an election calling for a Louisiana constitutional convention to rewrite state laws. In late September, when the votes were tallied, exactly half the delegates were black and half were white. Only two were not Republicans. When the conferees met in New Orleans in late November, a month before Sarah’s birth, the New Orleans Times derisively labeled their assembly the “Congo Convention.” President Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, delivered a similar indictment, accusing Radical Republicans of trying to “Africanize... half of our country” and calling blacks “utterly so ignorant of public affairs that their voting can consist in nothing more than carrying a ballot to the place where they are directed to deposit it.”
While most of the new voters were, in fact, illiterate, most of the black delegates had as much or more education than their white counterparts, and in some instances more than President Johnson, a tailor who had taught himself to read. Some had been enslaved; most were freeborn. Among the large property owners, a few had owned other human beings. At least one, Fortune Riard of Lafayette, had been educated in France, where he served as a naval officer.
During the final weeks of Minerva’s pregnancy Curtis Pollard—the Breedloves’ family minister and a newly elected delegate to the constitutional convention—talked optimistically of guaranteed suffrage for black adult males and statewide public education for the newly freed slaves. On December 31, eight days after Sarah’s birth, Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, another black delegate who later would serve as acting lieutenant governor of the state, introduced civil rights legislation outlawing segregation on trains, on ferries and in public places.
The Democrats were outraged, holding fast to a platform advocating “a government of white people” in which there could, “in no event nor under any circumstance, be any equality between the whites and other races.” Without the votes required to ensure this outcome, the party faithful struck back with terror and intimidation. During the next several months, the vigilante Knights of the White Camellia, who had organized in southern Louisiana in May 1867, began to gather members and sympathizers from other parts of the state. For a while, at least, Madison’s black population was not subjected to the more flagrant violence, in large part due to its numbers, as well as to the presence of federal troops in nearby Vicksburg. But any sense of personal safety would prove to be illusory and temporary.
Table of Contents
Biological Ancestors of Fairy Mae Bryant 9
Descendants of Owen Breedlove, Sr. 10
1 Freedom Baby 25
2 Motherless Child 32
3 Wife, Mother, Widow 40
4 St. Louis Woman 48
5 Answered Prayers 60
6 World's Fair 70
7 Westward 79
8 On the Road 92
9 Bold Moves 100
10 "The Salvation of Your Boys and Girls" 111
11 "I Promoted Myself…" 121
12 Breaking Ties, Making Ties 137
13 Sweet Satisfaction 145
14 New Horizons 157
15 Black Metropolis 169
16 Southern Tour 189
17 "We Should Protest" 203
18 War Abroad, War at Home 218
19 Her Dream of Dreams 233
20 Global Visions 250
21 "I Want to Live to Help My Race" 266
A'Lelia Walker: An Afterword 278
Selected Bibliography 376
Reading Group Guide
1) Very few documented details survive from Madam Walker's childhood as Sarah Breedlove. From her own words, we know that she was born in 1867 on the plantation where her parents had been slaves, that she was orphaned at 7, married at 14, a mother at 17 and a widow at 20. What events and people from her early life influenced her and planted the seeds for her later success? Because On Her Own Ground is a nonfiction book, the author cannot fictionalize details she does not know or fabricate conversations which never occurred. How does she compensate for the lack of documentation?
2) Madam Walker's daughter, Lelia (later known as A'Lelia Walker), provided much of her early motivation to improve her life. As Lelia grew older their relationship was complicated. In fact Madam Walker's secretary once said the relationship was "like fire and ice. They loved each other dearly and they sometimes fought fiercely." Yet, they were so enmeshed and emotionally connected that they were never fully estranged. The themes of loss and abandonment run through the lives of both women. Sarah's parents died before she really could know them. Lelia never really knew her father. Was Sarah overly protective? Did she spoil Lelia? How do you think John Davis's behavior affected their relationship? Why might it be that Lelia didn't seem to have the same level of ambition and drive as her mother?
3) What was the influence of the women of the AME Church, the NACW and the Court of Calanthe on Sarah? How did she use some of the networking skills she learned from these groups to organize her own sales agents and beauty culturists?
4) Many people focus on Madam Walker's role as a pioneer in the hair care industry. Her entrepreneurial contributions were important, but she seemed to have a vision for women that included economic independence and political action. Are there themes and initiatives that she raised at the 1917 and 1918 Walker agents convention and in other speeches that are relevant today?
5) Madam Walker wanted Booker T. Washington's endorsement though he was not receptive at first. Why did he shun her? How did she win him over? What do you think she felt when he resisted her efforts to speak at his 1912 National Negro Business League conference?
6) Madam Walker was one of the wealthiest self-made businesswomen of her era, but what made her truly great and unique was her philanthropy and political activism. Are there examples of women or African American entrepreneurs today who exhibit the same social consciousness? Why might such an approach be important?
7) What are some examples of Madam Walker's philanthropy?
8) Madam Walker tried to hide the existence of her second marriage to John Davis. Why do you think she did that? Why do you think she had so much difficulty in her marriages?
9) For many years many people believed the myth that Madam Walker invented the hot comb and that her primary objective was to straighten black women's hair. Now that you know this information is incorrect, what particular hygiene issue was she trying to address? Also, she was very aware of the controversy about whether black women should straighten their hair or maintain a more natural look. She once said, "Let me correct the erroneous impression that I claim to straighten hair. I deplore such impression because I have always held myself out as a hair culturist. I grow hair. I have absolute faith in my mission. I want the great masses of my people to take a greater pride in their appearance and to give their hair proper attention. I dare say that in the next ten years it will be a rare thing to see a kinky head of hair and it will not be straight either." What do you think she meant in the final sentence?
10) If your city is included in the book either as a place where Madam Walker lived or visited discuss what the community may have been like a century ago as African Americans and women tried to develop businesses and political organizations. Are there current reminders in your community of that history?
11) What were A'Lelia Walker's contributions to the Walker Company and to the Harlem Renaissance?
12) What is the current impact of Madam Walker's life? Does she still serve as an inspirational figure for women and people of color? What is her larger legacy to the business community?