cover image Madam C.J. Walker: The Making of an American Icon

Madam C.J. Walker: The Making of an American Icon

Erica L. Ball. Rowman & Littlefield, $35 (176p) ISBN 978-1-4422-6038-2

Ball (To Live an Antislavery Life), a professor of history and Black studies at Occidental College, delivers a concise and revealing biography of hair- and skin-care entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker (1867–1919). Born Sarah Breedlove to former slaves in a one-room cabin on a Louisiana plantation, Walker moved in 1887 or 1888 to St. Louis, where her brothers were barbers. After working as a sales agent for Mrs. Annie Pope’s Wonderful Hair Grower, she moved to Denver in 1905 and developed her own line of hair-care products. Walker traveled across the country to promote her business and franchise beauty schools and salons, and by 1911 had 950 agents selling her products nationwide. She also “engag[ed] in an array of community-building, philanthropic, and civil rights endeavors,” including the NAACP’s antilynching crusade. By the time of her death, she was worth $8.7 million in today’s money, with a mansion in Westchester County, N.Y., where her neighbors included John D. Rockefeller. Ball persuasively links Walker’s self-reinvention as a sophisticated entrepreneur to the transformation of formerly agrarian Black Southerners into a style-conscious and politically active urban Black working class. This brisk and informative account serves as a worthy introduction to a trailblazing businesswoman and social justice advocate. (Jan.)

Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated where the author teaches.