Madam C. J. Walker was born 150 years ago today.
Born Sarah Breedlove to formerly enslaved parents in Louisiana, she would go on to become one of the first female self-made millionaires in America. She made her fortune developing and selling hair care products for black women and in the process created an industry now worth over $700 million annually.
Madam Walker occupies a prominent place in the pantheon of African American historical figures. She would be the first face you would see on Mount Rushmore were it erected for female or black business people in America. That’s right, George Washington is the Madam C.J. Walker of American presidents.
Remembering her today reminds me of the day I discovered a family connection to her through my great grandmother Georgia Joyner which I will share in a bit. First, let me share a bit about my great grandmother and her life.
My great grandmother Monnie Ma (pronounced Mah-ni-mah) was born Georgia Mae Sharp in 1894 to Jenkins and Martha Hall Sharp in Nansemond County (now Suffolk), Virginia. Her father Jenkins Sharp was born enslaved in 1861 in Harrellsville Township, Hertford County, North Carolina, where many of Hertford’s plantations were located. Her mother Martha Hall was born to free colored parents from Winton Township, Hertford County, North Carolina in the mid-1860s. Winton was the epicenter of the free colored community. Jenkins and Martha married in 1887 and moved to Suffolk, VA to raise their family. They had five children, including my great grandmother Georgia.
The Sharps were an industrious family. According to the 1910 census, my great-great grandmother Martha Hall Sharp was a midwife for the black community of Suffolk, VA. My great-great grandfather Jenkins was a “Fireman” for a smelting mill, which was, relatively speaking, a good factory job in those days. In 1910, my great grandmother Georgia was 16 and working at the local peanut factory. Did you know that Suffolk, Virginia is known as the peanut capital of the world? You can thank me later for that bit of trivia.
In 1914, Georgia Mae married James Joyner of Hobgood, Halifax County, North Carolina. The Joyners were as entrepreneurial as the Sharps were industrious. By 1930, in the midst of the great depression, James and Georgia Joyner had opened up a country store and earned a living serving the black community of Suffolk, VA. Tragically, James Joyner died in 1935, age 47, from injuries suffered from a robbery attempt, leaving Georgia Mae to raise five children on her own. She continued to run the shop herself after he died.
Growing up, I heard many stories about my great grandmother’s store and her business savvy. Like the time local authorities paid her a visit asking about a man who would reportedly regularly visit her shop and buy up hundreds of pounds of sugar. Turns out this was the era of prohibition and sugar was a key ingredient to making moonshine. My great grandmother made it clear to the authorities she knew nothing of that, and that she was simply serving her customers and sent them on their way. She would always find a way to sell you something. If someone came in the store wanting chewing gum but did not have the money for a whole pack, she would open the pack and sell them a stick of gum. If they did not have the money for a full stick of gum, she would split it and sell them a half a stick.
I learned about my great grandmother’s connection to Madam C. J. Walker while digging through a box of family documents my mother shipped to me a few years back. The box included a 1917 contract for Georgia Joyner to become a sales agent for Madam C.J. Walker in Suffolk, Virginia. The year 1917 was a particularly important time for Walker as she traveled throughout the south recruiting and organizing agents for her first annual convention of Walker beauty culturists held in Philadelphia. I wonder if my great grandmother attended this convention.
My great grandmother did not receive a formal education, but she was highly intelligent, possessing a natural mind for numbers, and was committed to education. She was one of the founders of East Suffolk High School, the first high school established for black students in Suffolk VA, which grew out of the East Suffolk Rosenwald School in 1939. My mother would graduate from East Suffolk High School as the class Salutatorian and then integrate Randolph Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, VA, majoring in math. My great grandmother made sure all of her daughters graduated from high school and attended college. My grandmother Athalia (Granna) and my grand aunts Doris, Juanita (Aunt Neat) and Georgia Rose (Aunt G), all earned degrees in the 1940s from Virginia State College for Negroes, now Virginia State University. My grand uncle James Joyner completed high school and enjoyed a long career of service to our country in the military.
Madam C. J. Walker served as an inspiration for women like my great grandmother, representing what was possible for strong black women with ambitions as entrepreneurs to achieve, despite the circumstances into which they were born. Both women also shared a commitment to education, understanding it to be the key to success for future generations of African Americans.
A’Lelia Bundles is a journalist and the great-great granddaughter of Madam C. J. Walker. She is also an award-winning author who has dedicated herself to detailing the life and legacy of her great-great grandmother. I bumped into her recently at a Harvard Alumni event on the future of education, hosted at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Whenever we see each other, we enjoy sharing stories of family history. The evening — the museum, my conversation with A’Lelia, the panel discussion on education — left me completely filled with gratitude for the extraordinary lives our ancestors lived. So happy birthday and thank you Madam C. J. Walker and thank you Monnie Ma.