INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Madam C.J. Walker became the first black female self-made millionaire in America. She did it by building a hair care empire in Indianapolis.
Although she died 100 years ago, her life is now being celebrated. The theater bearing her name is under a multimillion-dollar renovation, and a Netflix special detailing her life will soon be released. Her great-great-granddaughter said Walker’s legacy is much more than hair care.
Madam Walker’s name stands boldly over her theater on Indiana Avenue. And the description bold seems fitting. In the early 1900s she did something that many thought just was not possible for most women or African Americans — she built a business empire.
“It was amazing that she pioneered the black hair care industry but the things that really interested me was what she did with that wealth and then she used it to become an activist,” said her great-great-granddaughter A’lelia Bundles.
Walker was born on a Louisiana plantation to newly freed slaves. But later in life, at 38 years old, she made the switch from a washer woman to a black hair care pioneer. And that’s not all, she spent a lot of her time advocating for anti-lynching legislation and women’s suffrage.
Her company employed thousands and she also developed educational programs to help women become financially independent.
“She said it was black people who built my company and so I really feel like I need to give back to my community,” said Bundles.
Named after Madam Walker’s daughter, Bundles grew up coming to the Madam Walker Theater.
She said it wasn’t until later in life, she took a close interest in Walker’s life. She said some would be shocked to learn Walker’s products were born out of desperation.
“She was losing her hair so the key for her is that she developed a shampoo and then anointment kind of like Vaseline that had sulfur.”
She said there’s a lot of misconceptions. Madam Walker did not invent the hot comb so we have to get rid of that myth.”
And she wasn’t big on hair-straightening products.
“Madam Walker was really about healthy hair. It’s really a misconception to think that she was primarily focused on straightening hair. I think she will be thrilled to see where we are right now,” said Bundles.
While no longer a major player in the hair care industry, Madam Walker products are back on the shelves with a special MCJW line.
The Netflix four-part series called “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” is based off A’leila Bundles’ book, “On Her Own Ground.” It’s scheduled to be released on March 20th.