Mon 2 Aug, 2010
Tags: African American, Avon, Betty Boop, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Cotton Club, Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Harlem, Madam C.J. Walker, Michael Jackson, moon walk, opium den, scat
The most important and successful African American cosmetics entrepreneur was Sarah Breedlove (Madam C.J. Walker) – her story is inspiring.
Sarah was born (one of six children) in Delta, Louisiana on December 23, 1867. Because she’d lost both of her parents by the time she was seven years old, she moved in with her older sister, Louvenia, and brother-in-law, Willie Powell. Powell was abusive to her, so she married Moses McWilliams when she was 14 years old to escape. Three years later her daughter, Lelia McWilliams was born. When Sarah was 20, her husband died. Shortly afterward she moved to St. Louis where three of her brothers were barbers. She may have learned some hair care tips from her brothers, but it would be her own drive and initiative that would enable her to create the company that would make her famous, and rich.
On August 11, 1894 Sarah married a man named John Davis. That marriage ended around 1903. In January 1906 she married a newspaper sales agent, Charles Joseph Walker. They divorced in 1912.
Walker would later say: “When we began to make $10 a day, [my ex-husband] thought that was enough, thought I ought to be satisfied.” “But I was convinced that my hair preparation would fill a long-felt want. And when we found it impossible to agree, due to his narrowness of vision, I embarked on business for myself.” Clearly Walker was a woman who knew what she wanted, and was unafraid of hard work.
Her business paradigm was innovative and in the years since it has been used by other companies such as the California Perfume Company (their name was later changed to AVON). Madam Walker knew marketing strategies of the past had focused mostly on advertising; she also knew that the majority of black women at the time were unable to read. Thus, she began a uniquely successful campaign of face to face network marketing. But what made Walker a success was not just the fact that she knew and understood her market; she was, after all, her own best customer. Walker was able to get the market on her side by using it as manpower.
In May 1918 she moved to her Irvington-on-Hudson, New York estate, Villa Lewaro, which had been designed by Vertner Tandy, the first licensed black architect in New York State and a founding member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
One of her neighbors was industrialist John D. Rockefeller and, it may come as no surprise that most of her stuffy, white, upper-crust neighbors had a less than welcoming attitude toward her. “One of the race,” wrote one newspaper, “is invading the domains of New York’s aristocracy.” The New York Times even wrote, “No woman of her race could own such a place. Does she really intend to live there?”
Madam C.J. Walker died at Villa Lewaro on Sunday, May 25, 1919 from complications of hypertension. She was only 51. At her death she was considered to be the wealthiest African-American woman in America and known to be the first Africa-American millionaire. Her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, became the president of the C.J Walker Manufacturing Company.
I’ve been told that Madam Walker’s business model is still studied today in business schools. I don’t know if that is true, but if it isn’t, it ought to be.
Apart from suggesting to me the story of Madam C.J. Walker, the Hi-Hat face powder box calls to mind images of places like the famous Cotton Club, and people like the incomparable Cab Calloway. By the early 1930s Calloway’s band was the “co-house” band with Duke Ellington.
Calloway, who decided to pursue music rather than law as a career, was so hep that in 1944 The New Cab Calloway’s Hepsters Dictionary: Language of Jive was published. It was an update of an earlier book in which Calloway set about translating jive for fans who might not know, for example, that “kicking the gong around” was a reference to smoking opium.
Hey, I knew that – didn’t you?
Calloway was also a terrific scat singer. For those of you unfamiliar with the term it is, according to Wikipedia: “… vocal improvisation with random vocals and nonsense syllables or without words at all. Scat singing gives singers the ability to sing improvised melodies and rhythms, to create the equivalent of an instrumental solo using their voice.”
Calloway wasn’t only a first class scat sinner – he’s the father of the “moon walk”. That’s right, if you thought that Michael Jackson invented “moon walking” – wrong. Check out this video of Cab and Betty Boop. You’ll see the genesis of the moon walk, and hear Cab scat.
I need a time machine. Can someone get one for me? Right now I feel like putting on my best gown and heading over to the Cotton Club in Harlem during the 1930s. I’ll sip a few cocktails at a front table. And maybe I’ll get lucky and Cab and his band will be there, or even Billie Holiday or Ethel Waters.
To finish off the evening I’ll grab a taxi to Chinatown – maybe kick a gong around.