From Madame CJ to Modern America

Growing up, I had a good friend whose father, a barber, not only cut hair, but helped people who were having problems growing it. I don’t recall when I became aware of the business he ran out of his home because there were no signs posted on the house, and although I visited the home a lot, my friend and I were usually talking in the kitchen with her mother or playing the player-piano in their living room. (Imagine what a treat that was — a music-making machine that allowed us to pretend to play by placing music rolls in the piano and pumping away at the pedals to our hearts’ content while singing such songs as “When I Take My Sugar To Tea?”)

Player piano

Player piano, Bayernhof Museum, Pittsburgh, Pensylvania. 2013 (Photo by Daderot / CC0)

The barber wasn’t the most popular person in the neighborhood because he was cranky and didn’t enjoy having kids playing “peacock” — a game that involved driving the small piece of wood that was the peacock directly at the back wall of his home. Not only was I aware of what that game inflicted on pictures hanging on the other side of that back wall, I was aware that my own brothers were part and parcel of the ongoing — let’s name it — harassment.

However, the barber also played the fiddle (sort of) and when he became aware that I was taking piano lessons, he insisted that I chord for him. I knew as much about chording as I did about playing peacock, (probably a little less), but he would insist I give him a note so he could tune the fiddle and then he would scratch away at it as I pretty much banged on a few keys while he played. My friend would wait patiently until her father had had enough of my accompaniment and put the fiddle back in its case. Come to think of it, my piano playing never did progress much past banging away at a few keys.


This unexpected trip down memory lane came as a result of watching Self Made, a Netflix offering about Madam C.J. Walker, who has gone down in history as the “first female millionaire in America.” according to The Guinness Book of Records. How did she make her millions? By growing hair (now you get it!), specifically, Black women’s hair, including her own, which was very difficult to grow due to severe dandruff and other scalp ailments caused by poor diet, plus a lack of indoor plumbing and other modern conveniences.

Self Made has been criticized for certain inaccuracies which made it “more a work of fiction than a biography,” but given Wikipedia’s account of her life, Walker was a formidable force, no doubt about it.

Madam C.J. Walker in an early automobile

Madam C.J. Walker in an early automobile

Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Louisiana, she was one of six children, but the first born after the signing of the Emancipation Declaration, which made her a “free” woman whose mother, incidentally (and significantly, in this time of COVID-19) died from cholera, an epidemic that had traveled with Mississippi river boat passengers. Sarah, whose only formal education was three months of Sunday School at her local church, married at 14, had her only child, A’Lieila, at 16, was widowed, married again and divorced, before marrying her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker in 1906. She divorced him in 1912, but kept his name, as Madam C.J. Walker.

Walker’s interest in hair and beauty products for black women became her life-long passion, one she passed on to her daughter, ensuring she received a formal education before eventually taking over the company her mother had spent years building. They moved to Denver, then to Pittsburgh and in 1910, relocated the business to Indianapolis. Walker was not only a Black businesswoman, she was a philanthropist who donated generously to many Black institutions and trained 20,000 women to be “beauty culturists” and sales agents, a group that eventually formed the Madame C.J. Walker Beauty Culturists Union of America.

At their first convention, in Philadelphia in 1917, she not only rewarded members of the union who had sold the most products and brought in the most new sales agents, she also rewarded those who had made the largest charitable donations. Walker declared from the convention floor:

I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.


As I watched Self Made, I kept wondering what Walker, who faced her share of racism, would make of America today. What, for example, would she think of the protests happening this week in dozens of American cities? Of what Jamilah King, writing in Mother Jones, calls:

…a swelling of outrage and, thanks largely to militarized police forces, violence not seen in the United States since 1968, when a confluence of very preventable events—the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., escalation of the war in Vietnam, a bitter presidential election—pushed nearly anyone with a political conscience into physical action.

Protesters react to tear gas at George Floyd protests in Washington, D.C. 30 May 2020

Protesters react to tear gas at George Floyd protests in Washington, D.C. 30 May 2020 (Photo by Rosa Pineda / CC BY-SA)

The militarization of police, and the military-style equipment that police are acquiring does seem to be in preparation for a war rather than a traffic stop, and when Black people are the ones most likely to be stopped and arrested for daring to resist a police officer, it’s no wonder that the murder of George Floyd has erupted in such a fury of anger and angst. The question often is “Why did one straw break the camel’s back?” King answers:

Here’s the secret – the million other straws underneath it.


King writes that for 3 and 1/2 years, US President Donald Trump has used “outright racism as a rallying call,” noting that in the “first several months of 2020, at least a handful of Black people have been wantonly killed by police or white vigilantes.” Watching Trump stand in front of St. John’s church, near the White House, brandishing a Bible (and obviously trying to sort out which end was up) after telling the American people that he will have every State Governor mobilize the military to stop the protests and send them in himself if any Governor refuses to do so, one is inclined to believe that King’s prediction of a “violent summer” is not far off the mark.

Jack Jenkins, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, says St. John’s Church was empty when Trump arrived “but not by choice.” According to Jenkins, armored police had arrived less than an hour before Trump appeared, using tear gas “to clear hundreds of peaceful protesters” as well, it was revealed, as a group of clergy and helpers who had arrived earlier to provide comfort, food and drink to those protesting.

screen grab of US Government image from C-SPAN video "President Trump walks across Lafayette Park to St. John's Church"

Screen grab of US Government image from C-SPAN video “President Trump walks across Lafayette Park to St. John’s Church” (1 June 2020)

Jenkins quotes the Rev. Gini Gerbasi who was there:

“The police in their riot gear with their black shields and the whole bit start pushing on to the patio of St. John’s Lafayette Square,” she said, adding that people around her began crying out in pain, claiming to be shot with non-lethal projectiles.

According to Gerbasi, a few stepped outside onto the patio, only to be enveloped by tear gas that Jenkins says was being sprayed at the demonstrators to drive them away before Trump made his appearance. “They turned Holy ground into a battlefield” was Gerbasi’s reaction, and she quickly advised those who had been inside the church to leave immediately.

When the Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of Washington, who was not present, was informed of the happening, she was “outraged.”

He didn’t come to pray. He didn’t come to lament the death of George Floyd. He didn’t come to address the deep wounds that are being expressed through peaceful protest by the thousands upon thousands. He didn’t try to bring calm to situations that are exploding with pain.

To top off an unfamiliar religious pilgrimage, Trump, this time accompanied by Melania, visited a shrine to Pope John Paul ll on Tuesday, standing holding hands and no doubt praying, but to whom and for what wasn’t entirely clear.




Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.