Art News

Denver Made Madam C.J. Walker — Which the Netflix Series Ignored

Octavia Spencer playing Madam C.J. Walker in Netflix's limited miniseries, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.
Octavia Spencer playing Madam C.J. Walker in Netflix's limited miniseries, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. Self Made, Netflix, 2020
Colorado history is full of under-celebrated heroes. Among the ranks is Madam C.J. Walker, America's first self-made female millionaire.

In recent days, Walker received some overdue widespread pop-culture recognition as the subject of a new Netflix series, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. However, the series, which is not particularly well reviewed or historically accurate, overlooks the entire chapter of Walker's life spent in Colorado.

click to enlarge Madam C.J. Walker, circa the early 1900s. - SCURLOCK STUDIO / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Madam C.J. Walker, circa the early 1900s.
Scurlock Studio / Wikimedia Commons
Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who became known as Madam C.J. Walker was the daughter of Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove, emancipated slaves turned sharecroppers after the Civil War.

Orphaned by age seven, married by age fourteen, a mother by age eighteen and divorced by age twenty, Breedlove was no stranger to hardship. In 1887, when her first husband, Moses McWilliams, passed away, she moved to St. Louis to be with her four brothers.

Upon settling in St. Louis, Breedlove took up work as a laundress and cook. But in 1904, she had yet to achieve the life she'd dreamed of when she moved away from Louisiana. She was still struggling financially, and her body began to suffer from a lifetime of hard physical labor. She was stressed, tired and, much to her dismay, balding.

This led her to try Annie Turbo Malone’s hair-care product called "The Great Wonderful Hair Grower.” Malone was a prominent African-American entrepreneur, and Breedlove was inspired by her work. At that time, there weren't many beauty products made by or for African-American bodies.

Impressed by the results of Malone's hair grower, Breedlove joined her team of black female sales agents. She was empowered by the idea of giving black women the ability to own their beauty and use their newfound self-confidence to pursue a better life.

In 1905, Breedlove moved to Denver. Here, she married adman Charles Joseph Walker and changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker.

With only $1.25 to her name, Walker broke free from Malone's company and launched her own line of beauty products, called “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.”
click to enlarge Madam C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower, on display in the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Madam C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower, on display in the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.
After a divorce in 1910, Madam Walker relocated to Indianapolis, a bustling hub for African-American entrepreneurs. There she founded the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company and developed a “Walker System” training program for all of the company's stylists.

Regarded as a fair businesswoman, Walker's national network of licensed sales agents earned healthy commissions; they were encouraged to move up within the company.

Throughout her life, Walker's determination, backed by her quality beauty products and a principled message, earned her wealth and acclaim. By the end of her career, she had come to employ 40,000 African-American women and men, including employees in the United States, Central America and the Caribbean.

At her company's height, her annual sales exceeded $500,000 and her net worth was over $1 million. However, Walker never lost sight of her roots. As her fortune increased, so did her philanthropic and political outreach.

Walker contributed to an abundance of social causes, including the YMCA, orphanages, retirement homes, tuition funds for African-American students, the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund, and the fund to preserve Frederick Douglass’s home in Washington, D.C.

In 1919, as Walker faced an early death at 51 brought on by kidney failure, she prepared herself and her estate for future generations. In her final will and testament, Walker bequeathed two-thirds of all future profits to charity, as well as designated funds for specific individuals and educational institutions.

Although the Netflix series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker may not be the most high-quality show currently streaming, it's worth a watch for this reason: In a world defined by a global pandemic, with social distancing, financial strife and uncertainty on the horizon, we could all use a dose of Walker's story of grit and determination.

And while we're all social distancing and walking the city more than ever, enjoy a stroll through Madame C.J. Walker Park at 1900 East 30th Avenue in Denver's Whittier neighborhood, too.
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Lauren Antonoff is a Denver native dedicated to telling Colorado stories. She loves all things multi-media, and can often be found tinkering in digital collage. She joined the Westword team in 2019, where she serves as the Audience Engagement Editor — connecting people, ideas, and the stories that matter.
Contact: Lauren Antonoff