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Black History Month: Madam C.J. Walker

February 9, 2016

It’s Black History Month.

The month we learn and celebrate the achievements of black Americans. Here at the History Center, students and teachers can research the Hoosier ties of one of the most famous black female business owners Madam C.J. Walker. While Walker wasn’t born in Indiana, she is a notable Hoosier who created her cosmetic empire in Indianapolis.

Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on Dec. 23, 1867 to newly freed slaves – Owen and Minerva Breedlove, on a cotton plantation in Delta, La. She was the first in her family to be free-born. Her parents died when she was 7 years old, and she went to live with her sister. In 1900, due to stress and poor diet, she began to lose her hair.

This led her to creating her own special formula that she would sell as shampoos and ointments from her company, Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co., named after her husband, Charles Joseph Walker. In 1910, Walker moved to Indianapolis and set up a laboratory and beauty school.

Walker encouraged other black women to become successful in business and used her beauty school to teach the “Walker Beauty Method.” She was an advocate for education and was involved with and donated to many African-American charities in Indianapolis, including Flanner House, Alpha Home, the Senate Avenue YMCA and Bethel AME church. In 1915, she began a lawsuit to protest discrimination at a theater in Indianapolis. She died in 1919 at the age of 51.

Walker’s associate and close friend Freeman B. Ransom was her longtime business manager and attorney of Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co. Ransom handled the day-to-day operations and finances of the company while Walker was away.

Ransom got his start with Walker’s company early on. He boarded in Walker’s house when she first arrived in Indianapolis and was one of the lawyers who helped Walker file incorporation papers and other legal work. Ransom continued to stay with the company until his death in 1947 when his son, Willard, known as Mike, took over.

Our newest collection is the Ransom Family Papers which include business, civic and limited personal materials of Freeman and Mike Ransom. This collection, along with the Walker Papers, provide excellent research on Madam C.J. Walker.

More information on the Ransom Family Papers can be found here.


Melissa Brummett is a Marketing Intern at the Indiana Historical Society. She enjoys photography, reading, sports and history.

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