Madam C. J. Walker—reputed to be America’s first self-made woman millionaire—has long been celebrated for her rags-to-riches story. Born to former enslaved parents in the Louisiana Delta in the aftermath of the Civil War, married at fourteen, and widowed at twenty, Walker spent the first decades of her life as a laundress, laboring in conditions that paralleled the lives of countless poor and working-class African American women. By the time of her death in 1919, however, Walker had refashioned herself into one of the most famous African American figures in the nation: the owner and president of a hair-care empire and a philanthropist wealthy enough to own a country estate near the Rockefellers. In this biography, Erica Ball places this remarkable and largely forgotten life story in the context of Walker’s times.
I recently saw an episode of Antiques Roadshow where a Black stylist brought in a first edition of Madame CJ Walker’s Beauty Book published in 1920 and valued at $7500. The stylist commented that she still uses some of instructions found in the book. I thought that was interesting and reminded me that I have wanted to know more about Madame Walker. This book satisfied my curiosity.
Author Erica L. Ball is a professor of History and Black Studies at Occidental College and she has produced a scholarly and very readable biography of this multi-talented, complicated woman. Part of the Library of African-American Biography series, this offers a deep look into Walker’s life from her beginnings as Sarah Breedlove right through to her becoming the first Black millionaire in the United States.
Ball addresses the good and bad aspects of Walker’s life and ends up presenting a well-written, well-researched, fascinating look at an American icon. Recommended.