A compelling reason to visit Indianapolis is to see the Madam Walker Legacy Center, a four-story, block-long flatiron building made of buff-colored terracotta brick, originally constructed in 1927 as the manufacturing plant of Madam CJ Walker Hair Care and Beauty Products.
More than a building, the Walker Center at 617 Indiana Avenue is a monument to Madam CJ Walker. She transformed herself from a washer woman into one of the 20th century’s most successful, self-made women entrepreneurs. Walker uplifted African Americans in Indianapolis and throughout the United States during a time of oppressive racism.
CJ Walker was the business name of Sarah Breedlove, born in Louisiana in 1867 to former slaves. Orphaned at seven and married by 14, Walker became America’s first black female millionaire famous for her nationally popular haircare products and more than a dozen beauty schools.
Madam CJ Walker officially changed her name after marrying her third husband in 1905. The years spent as a washer woman took a toll, and Walker began losing her hair. She told a journalist she dreamed that “a big black man” came to her and gave her a formula to make her hair grow. She mixed up the formula, and it worked for her and her friends. People begged for her “hair grower,” and she began selling it door to door in St Louis. Walker was a savvy marketer and used her own likeness in all of her promotional materials. At the time, most advertisements directed at black consumers depicted either white models or images of black people that many found objectionable.
Walker created Glossine, an oil-based ointment that smoothed and softened hair. She later redesigned the handle and teeth of the European hot comb to work for black hair and was the first major distributor of the comb in the US. The advent of Glossine was a breakthrough, but it was also controversial. Some accused Walker of trying to make African American hair look more like Caucasian hair.
Walker founded her business in Pittsburgh but moved it to Indianapolis to take advantage of the city’s bustling black businesses, extensive train routes and thriving newspapers, in which she was a major advertiser. In 1910, she established a beauty school and laboratory in Indianapolis, where she trained women to become “Walker hair culturalists” and over time employed 5,000 African American women. The Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company operated from the late 1920s until the mid-1980s. One of only 15 women inducted into the National Business Hall of Fame, Walker is listed among the top 30 American entrepreneurs of all time by Businessweek.
Walker used her wealth for the greater good, becoming a social activist and philanthropist. She gave $1,000 to establish the “colored” YMCA on Senate Avenue, garnering national publicity and awe, as she was the first person and only woman to donate.
In 1912, after financial success in Indianapolis, Walker was denied time to speak at the Thirteenth Annual Convention of the National Negro Business League. Defiant, she walked up and claimed the podium from moderator Booker T Washington.
“Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face,” she said. “I feel that I am in a business that is a credit to the womanhood of our race. I am a woman who started a business seven years ago with only $1.50 … I am a woman that came from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted from there to the washtub. Then, I was promoted to the cook kitchen, and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations.”
Walker’s brave speech earned her a spot on the convention’s agenda the following year.
Walker eventually left Indianapolis for New York City in 1916, where she died of issues related to hypertension three years later at the age of 51. In just 14 years, she accomplished so much as an entrepreneur, self-made millionaire and advocate for the black community.
Today, the Madam Walker Legacy Center is the last remaining 20th-century building in the 600 block of Indiana Avenue. Listed as a National Historic Landmark, the building was planned by Madam Walker herself to house her company but was constructed eight years after her death by her daughter A’Lelia Walker. The Art Deco-style edifice is embellished with brightly colored African masks.
After she was charged more than white patrons to attend a performance at the city’s Isis Theater, Walker included an opulent theater in her building plan, and it remains a centerpiece on the avenue. The Walker Theatre stands today as part of the Madam Walker Legacy Center and a showpiece dedicated to the cross-cultural appreciation of the arts. Looming red letters atop the roof spell out “Walker Theatre.” The hall has hosted such performers as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Patti LaBelle and Michael Bolton.
Before it closed in 1964 and remained shuttered for 20 years, Walker’s building was the center of the Indianapolis African American community and a city within a city that included a drugstore, a casino, a beauty school, a ballroom and a coffee shop called the Teapot. Denied office space in buildings owned by whites, black doctors, lawyers and other professionals rented space there. It was said to be “an oasis in a desert of exclusion.” After a refurbishment in 1988, a gala was held, and notables on hand were singer Isaac Hayes, author Alex Haley and dancer Gregory Hines. A grand opening to celebrate the most recent $15 million renovation will be held on June 8 2020.
Today, the Madam Walker Legacy Center engages diverse audiences and promotes creativity in entrepreneurial and artistic expression. In 2018, the Walker and Indiana University partnered to elevate the center’s profile and serve current and future generations of leaders, entrepreneurs and community members. Programming focuses on art, financial literacy, leadership, entrepreneurship and philanthropy.
Indianapolis boasts other tributes to Madam CJ Walker. The Indiana Historical Society’s (IHS) exhibit, You Are There 1915:Madam CJ Walker, Empowering Women, runs through January 2021. Guests walk through a recreation of Madam Walker’s first factory, once located at 640 North West Street next door to the present Walker building, where they meet actors portraying Walker and her daughter. Another section features IHS collection items, such as tins of Walker’s products, her car registration and a Christmas card she sent to employees. Guests can take a digital tour of sites related to Walker’s impact across the city.
The William H Smith Memorial Library at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center houses a collection of archival materials detailing Walker’s life.
The Alexander is part art museum, part hotel with an original collection curated by the Indianapolis Museum of Art that includes a portrait of Madam CJ Walker made entirely of combs by artist Sonya Clark.
“[Walker] was such a force,” says Clark. “She died before any woman could vote, but because she had capital, and therefore had power, she was sitting at the table with white men. Using black combs is very intentional, because I associate them with straight hair and white men. The combs are stamped with the word ‘unbreakable,’ but they are in fact broken, to speak about breaking boundaries.”
Actress Octavia Spencer plays Walker in the 2020 Netflix series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker.