American Portraits

On My Own Ground: Madam C.J. Walker and Identity

In this lesson, students will examine events in the life of Madam C. J. Walker, analyzing both her identity and her contributions to American identity.

Founding Principles

Equality image

Equality

Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Narrative

Breedlove experimented with her own homemade hair conditioners while working for Malone. She later explained that in a dream, she saw a man who showed her a recipe that included petrolatum, medicinal sulfur, and certain ingredients from Africa—a preparation similar to Malone’s. Breedlove soon married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaperman, and began to market her own new hair and beauty products as Madam C.J. Walker’s System. The flagship product was Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. Breedlove (now Walker) used her own before-and-after pictures in advertising and on the decorative tins in which she packed her pomades and other beauty supplies. The innovative marketing, coupled with Sarah’s indefatigable work ethic, made her business very successful….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can a person transform his/her identity from one of poverty and a target of abuse to one of power and generosity?

Virtue Defined

Identity answers the question, “Who am I?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will examine events in the life of Madam C. J. Walker, analyzing both her identity and her contributions to American identity.

Objectives

  • Students will understand how Madam C. J. Walker challenged the gender roles, prejudice, and discrimination of her times in America.
  • Students will analyze their own actions, goals, and ambitions to determine how identity contributes to the achievement of worthy goals.

Background

Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867 on the Delta, a Louisiana plantation where her parents had been enslaved prior to the end of the Civil War. Sarah and her family, which included her five siblings, continued to work the same cotton fields as sharecroppers following the Civil War. By the time she was seven, both of Sarah’s parents had died. She moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, working in the fields and completing other manual labor.

At age 14, Breedlove married Moses McWilliams to escape harsh treatment from her brother-in-law. The couple welcomed their daughter, A’Lelia, a couple of years later; however, when Sarah was only 20, her husband died. Breedlove and her toddler moved to St. Louis, where her brothers were successful barbers. She found a job helping alongside them while also taking in laundry. A’Lelia attended public school and Sarah joined the local African Methodist Episcopal Church. There, she eagerly practiced her faith and established her identity as a diligent worker.

However, Jim Crow laws at the time made life for black Americans difficult as they faced strict segregation and limited economic opportunity. African-American entrepreneurs looking to find success needed to work in developing products for the segregated market. When Breedlove began to suffer from a scalp malady that caused her to lose her hair, she tried various commercial preparations, including those made by Annie Malone, a black entrepreneur. Breedlove eventually moved to Denver, where she became a sales agent for Malone’s products. There, she provided in-home demonstrations and sold shampoos, lotions, and creams door-to-door.

Vocabulary

  • Sharecroppers
  • African Methodist Episcopal Church
  • Jim Crow
  • Segregation
  • Malady
  • Entrepreneur
  • Indefatigable
  • Lye
  • Deplore
  • Commission system
  • Walker System
  • Refinement
  • Charitable
  • Fervent
  • Proponent
  • Hypertension

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Sarah Breedlove started from a position of extreme poverty and a target of abuse. How do you think she found the strength of character to change her life to one of power and generosity?
  • What contributions did Madam C.J. Walker make to the advancement of freedom through her approach to understanding both her own identity and the American identity?
  • In what ways did Walker’s experiences as destitute sharecropper contribute to her ability to fight for the freedom of others?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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