In 1985, the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc. awarded its first Madam CJ Walker Award. The second award was presented in 1988. The Coalition has since made presentations at the Madam CJ Walker Awards Luncheon annually to recognize the merits and achievements of local African American business women in the Delaware Valley area. Award finalists are selected by a Nominations Subcommittee.
Madam C J Walker is recognized as one of the first self-made, African American female millionaires. She was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana to extremely poor parents. Sarah’s parents died when she was six years old, leaving her to be reared by an older sister. Married at the age of 14 to Moses McWilliams of Vicksburg, Mississippi, she gave birth to a daughter, Lelia. The family lived in Vicksburg until the death of Mr. McWilliams.
Faced with the task of raising a young daughter and challenges of an uncertain future, she moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where she worked for 18 years as a washerwoman to earn a living. In 1895, Madam Walker, using a trial and error method, reinvented a straightening comb to style her naturally curly hair. This invention was met with initial success and encouraged her to experiment with other hair care products, which she packed in jars and sold door-to-door. In 1906, she married Charles Joseph Walker and became known as Madam CJ Walker.
In 1910, she moved her operations to Indianapolis, Indiana, where the business flourished. Her business was incorporated and by 1913 contained a research laboratory and training school to teach the “Walker System” of hair styling. The Walker Manufacturing Company became the largest business owned and operated by an African American.
At its zenith, the company employed more than 3,000 people and extended an entire city block. The company established beauty salons across the country, had a large mail order department, and maintained a foreign operations division.
Madam Walker, in spite her acclaim and wealth, remained dedicated to her race. She gave generously to Black organizations and charities, and sponsored many Black artisans and artists. She is noted for her generosity to the NAACP, Tuskegee Institute, Bethune-Cookman College and aspiring poets, writers and other artists of the Harlem Renaissance.
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