Nearly 92 years after her death, Madam C.J. Walker remains an iconic figure in American history. Born Sarah Breedlove in rural Delta, Louisiana, the daughter of emancipated slaves is often credited as the first self-made African American millionaire. Her vast fortune was the result of her success in the beauty industry, with a product line that primarily catered to Black women.
Although she had a rural upbringing, Madam Walker’s legacy is most closely associated with great American cities, including Denver, St. Louis, and later Indianapolis. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, Madam Walker spent her early adult life in domestic service, most notably as a laundress. In the early 1900’s, after much experimentation, she discovered an effective hair care formula that she later manufactured. Her products were such a huge success, that she was able to open beauty salons across the country. The Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company trained nearly 20,000 hairdressers, and saleswomen to market beauty products internationally.
Madam Walker’s only daughter, Lelia Walker (later known as A’Lelia Walker) encouraged her mother to relocate her company’s headquarters to New York. Lelia arrived in Harlem in 1913, when her mother purchased a row house at 108 West 136th Street, just as New York City’s burgeoning black population was expanding into Harlem, and solidifying its status as the “capital of Black America.” By 1915, Madam Walker bought a second row house at 110 West 136th Street, and moved to the city in 1916.
Madam Walker commissioned Vertner Woodson Tandy (1885-1949), the first registered African American architect in the state of New York to work on creating a palatial residence and beauty salon. He was a graduate of Tuskegee University, and Cornell University’s architecture program. Mr. Tandy also made history as the first Black architect to establish his own practice in New York City at 1931 Broadway.
Mr. Tandy’s most famous work at the time was the neo-Gothic St. Philip's Episcopal Church (208 West 134th Street), which has salmon-colored Roman brick and terra cotta. The church was home to New York City’s oldest African American Episcopal congregation (established 1818), and was also considered the nation’s wealthiest black church. Today the building is a New York City, State, as well as National Historic Landmark. Tandy worked on this project with fellow African American architect George Washington Foster, Jr. (Tandy & Foster, 1910-1911).
By 1915, a unified townhouse was constructed, when the two separate row houses were rebuilt, with a new red brick Georgian style facade with limestone trim. The mixed-use building housed the Walker Salon, and beauty school on the lower level. The upper floors were used as a residence, which featured some of the most exquisite furnishings available at the time. In the biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, author A’Lelia Bundles gives an incredible description of the interior of the Walker home, considered one of Harlem’s most magnificent residences:
“Scalloped pale gray chiffon curtains framed the stylized Venetian windows that spanned the street-level front wall. On the right, French doors opened onto the hair salon with its patterned metal ceiling and buffed parquet floor. To the left at 108, marble Doric columns guarded the entrance to the upstairs living quarters. On the third floor, Madam Walker’s bedroom--- with its intricately carved fireplace and English wall tapestries--- was furnished in heavy mahogany. Down the hall Lelia’s ivory Louis XVI suite was trimmed in gold, her dresser and mantel filled with framed photographs and statuettes, her floor scattered with hand-woven Persian rugs" (Bundles 171-172).
The grandeur of the Walker townhouse was also noted in the book, When Harlem was in Vogue, where author David Levering Lewis wrote that the home, “flaunted their mistress’s wealth from the marble entrance hall and French rooms done in gold and buff to the Aubusson carpets beneath Louis XVI furniture.”
Historic photographs of the Walker Hair Parlor, which was considered one of the most luxurious salons in New York City.
Madam Walker died in 1919, and left the house to her daughter, A’Lelia, who in addition to working for her mother’s company was also a prominent socialite. She was a prominent figure during the Harlem Renaissance, which occured between the 1920's to the 1930's when African American arts, music, and literature flourished. Writer Langston Hughes once called his friend A'Lelia the "joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920’s.”
A’Lelia was known for her lavish parties, and in 1928, founded the “Dark Tower” an artists salon on one floor of her home. She entertained numerous poets, writers, artists, and people from various walks of life. The Dark Tower was named after Countee Cullen’s column in Opportunity magazine. In 1999, The New York Times named the Dark Tower’s opening night party as one of “The 10 parties that shook the century.” The venture lasted a year.
A’Lelia Walker died in 1931. The Walker townhouse was eventually owned by the city, after serving for several years as a health clinic. In 1941, the building was demolished, and replaced by the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library. In December 2010, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the City Council bill honoring the legacy of the Walker women, by renaming 136th Street where the mansion once stood, “Madam Walker and A'Lelia Walker Place."