Making Waves: A Legend’s Legacy Lives On

Madam C.J. Walker not only helped revive hair care rituals among Black Americans, but she provided women a chance at self-determination in a community rising from the ashes.
Photography by Tony Valainis
Madam C.J. Walker packaged her Wonderful Hair Grower in art nouveau tins, often used for other utilitarian purposes when empty.

BECAUSE OF ITS delicate structure, textured, kinky, coily hair has historically required a painstaking level of care, which has led to rich hair traditions across Africa and the African diaspora. The diversity of styles and techniques is endless, in antiquity often symbolizing a person’s clan, religion, or social status. However, when Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves, their time-consuming hair rituals proved difficult to bring with them. Servitude and hard labor did not allow them much time for daily grooming or self-care, and slave owners didn’t know or care about (and frequently were openly hostile toward, even banning) Black cultural traditions. Following emancipation, there was a learning curve in reestablishing black hair care habits.

Enter Madam C.J. Walker, who filled a much-needed role in providing services and products for women with textured hair. Born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana in 1867, Walker was orphaned young and held many jobs before entering the beauty industry. She built her business from the ground up, going door to door and sharing hair care advice in conjunction with selling her products. In 1911, she established her base of operations in Indianapolis and, over time, famously became “America’s first female self-made millionaire.” At the height of her success, she employed thousands of women as “hair culturists,” providing them with education, help with starting their own businesses, and encouragement to become financially independent.

After her death, ownership of Walker’s company passed down the line of women in her family until it closed in 1981. It was bought by Sundial Brands in 2013. In 2022, Sundial CEO Cara Sabin, in partnership with Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, was proud to announce a revival of the Madam Walker beauty line, called Madam, available exclusively at Walmart. The specialized formulas are designed to address the demands of textured hair—whether it is free and natural, chemically straightened or heat-treated, or protectively styled—from root to tip, with items ranging from $8 to $20 and including everything from Wonderful Hair and Scalp Balm-to-Oil for hydrating scalp care to Strengthen and Shine Braid Hairspray for preventing braid flyaways. They are also free of parabens, silicones, drying alcohols, and mineral oils. With this partnership, Walker’s legacy continues to cater to the unique needs of the textured hair community and, true to her original vision, the products sold in her name remain affordable and accessible.