March 11, 2021- In 1984, whilst in Guyana, I ran out of shampoo and went to the open air market in the small town of Bath. There, I purchased some Palmolive Shampoo, that had been made in Brazil. The product was much stronger than shampoos made in the United States, by the same company. My scalp was mildly burned.
This happened to me one time. I threw the shampoo in the trash, when I got back to the U.S. Until the 1910s, African-Americans had no recourse to hair care products that met their needs. The experience I had, once, was the lot of Black men, women and children-until Sarah Breedlove began her line of hair care and beauty products, marketed under the brand name Madam C.J. Walker’s . That name was taken, in honour of Sarah’s third husband, Charles Joseph Walker. It was the custom of many married women in that time to refer to themselves by their husband’s full name. Sarah divorced Charles in 1912, but kept his name until her death, in 1919. (Charles would outlive her by seven years.)
Sarah developed her line of Afrocentric beauty products, after suffering for several years with the use of products that led to severe dandruff and eczema-and eventually to hair loss. Experimenting, from the base line of products sold by one Annie Malone, Madam C.J. Walker became America’s first self-made female millionaire and brought attention to the skin and hair care needs of African-American women- bringing a host of products that moved beyond the folk remedies that had sustained people, both during and after the days of enslavement.
From this first line of such products, and from competitors such as Annie Malone and later, Sarah Spencer Washington, came a bona fide effort to teach African-American women the essentials of proper hair and skin care. This effort expanded, in the mid-Twentieth Century, to those Caribbean and Central American nations with significant Black communities. It has now gone worldwide.
Sarah Breedlove/Madam C.J. Walker brought grace and elegance to the lives of countless women whose needs had heretofore been ignored. She deserves a place of honour in this Women’s History Month.