In 1888, a young, African-American woman left Louisiana to join her brothers in St. Louis.
The future Madam C.J. Walker earned a living by doing laundry, then began selling beauty products. Eventually she founded her own company and went on to become one of the nation’s first black, female millionaires. Warner Brothers is producing a TV series for Netflix about her life.
Walker’s time in St. Louis was transformational, according to her great-great granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, who wrote the book on which the series is based.
“If I were writing the script, and I were in total control, St. Louis would be really critical,” Bundles said.
Drawing inspiration from church
After Walker arrived in St. Louis at 20, she became active in the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, near Page and Goodfellow boulevards. The church was an important community hub and center of activism and eventually became the birthplace of the St. Louis Chapter of the NAACP.
“It was the women of the community there who really inspired her,” Bundles said.
In St. Louis, Walker also met Annie Malone, who had already begun a beauty-products business. Walker sold Malone’s wares before creating her first signature product called “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The sulfur-based ointment was touted as a method for eliminating dandruff and healing scalp infections.
After 17 years in St. Louis, Walker moved to Denver, where she established her company before building a headquarters and factory in Indianapolis. She opened several beauty schools around the country including one on Market Street in St. Louis.
Bundles, who is an executive consultant in the series, expects it will be released in 2019. That will be nearly two decades after Bundles published her book, “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker.” A string of films paved the way for the TV project, Bundles said.
“In the last few years, there have been some really successful movies from ‘12 Years a Slave’ and ‘The Butler’ and obviously ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Get Out,’” Bundles said. “And I think it’s very clear now that topics that involve people of color can be very commercially successful.”
The importance of black hair and black ownership
Walker’s story is much more complicated than a tale of entrepreneurship, according to Rebecca Wanzo, a Washington University professor focused on women’s studies and African-American culture.
“The treatment of African-American women’s hair is incredibly important in the history of African-American culture,” Wanzo said. “Inserting herself into that industry in the early 20th century really made a difference in terms of black people having a really big market share in the treatment of black hair. Previously, it was white pharmaceutical companies.”
Walker was also instrumental in providing jobs for black women.
“She also trained African-American women to do hair, where they could be working for themselves, and working for black people as opposed to domestics for white people,” Wanzo said.
Actor Octavia Spencer, who became well-known after co-starring in the movie “The Help” and further established herself in films including “Hidden Figures,” is producing the Walker series. Spencer will also play the part of Madam Walker.
Spencer’s rise in the industry may have been a factor in launching the Walker TV series, according to Wanzo.
“Part of how projects starring black people get made is that black people have a role in being producers of properties and bringing these properties to networks and corporations,” Wanzo said.
Wanzo hopes the series will accurately portray the many ways in which black entrepreneurs were blocked from success in the early 20th century.
“As opposed to just an ‘uplift narrative’: you know, ‘She wanted to build a business; she did. And there were some racist obstacles but then she overcame them,’” Wanzo said. “That would be the failure, to me.”
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