Sarah Breedlove’s life was the stuff of binge-worthy TV. Born on a cotton plantation to newly freed slaves in 1867, she toiled as a washerwoman in early 20th-century St. Louis before founding a business empire. After selling products for St. Louis hair-care magnate Annie Malone, she launched a line of her own under her married name, Madam C.J. Walker — and became the richest African American woman in the country. At the time of her death, in 1919, Walker had amassed a fortune of over $7 million in today’s money.
A little over a century later, Madam C.J. Walker’s remarkable life has gotten the Hollywood treatment. The Netflix series “Self Made” tells the story of Walker’s rise and what it portrays as a toxic relationship with Malone, fictionalized as “Addie Monroe.”
In real life, the women’s relationship wasn’t so toxic, said Gwen Moore, the curator of Urban Landscape and Community Identity for the Missouri Historical Society. The Hollywood version of Annie Malone was prejudiced against dark-skinned women like Walker; the real Annie Malone was one herself.
“If you saw her, you’d say, ‘This was a black woman.’ This was not a highly light-skinned woman,” Moore explained on St. Louis on the Air.
Moore also detailed Malone’s legacy in St. Louis, which includes the Annie Malone Children & Family Services organization and an annual May Day parade that benefits it.
While Moore enjoyed “Self Made,” she credits the biography by A’Lelia Bundles, who is a journalist and Walker’s great-granddaughter, with telling the true story of Walker’s life. Originally released as “On Her Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker,” it’s now being sold as “Self Made” to tie into the Netflix series.
On the show, Bundles explained that Walker benefited from her time in St. Louis, where she moved as a widowed 20-year-old in 1880. Her brothers were barbers, and she learned from their techniques. At 38, she “transformed herself into a successful entrepreneur who employed thousands of women, became a philanthropist, a political activist and a patron of the arts.”
Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, also discussed Walker’s legacy. That includes her summer home, Villa Lewaro, which was designed by the first black architect to be licensed in the state of New York. The National Trust now has an easement on the property to ensure that it’s preserved for future generations.
“This place, called Villa Lewaro, stands as a lasting testimony and reminder of Madam Walker’s remarkable life and the entrepreneurial spirit that many black women had in the 20th century,” he said.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.
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