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Celebrating Black Women’s Contributions to Hair Care

Black History Month is a great time to share stories of black women who have made significant societal contributions.

That’s why I want to honor two women whose inventions directly impact an essential part of my life – my hair.

Annie Turnbo Malone, Madam CJ Walker, and Christina Jenkins pioneered haircare, inventing products that specifically benefit black women’s hair and add to my daily beauty. They might also add to your beauty, even if you don’t realize it.

Here are their stories.

Annie Turnbo Malone

Annie Turnbo Malone’s story often gets overshadowed by her incredibly successful employee, Madam CJ Walker. Yet, she was integral to the evolution of haircare for black women.

Annie was an entrepreneur at a time when there were very few black women entrepreneurs. She became a millionaire by the end of World War I and ended up donating most of her fortune to philanthropic organizations.

Annie was the daughter of formerly enslaved parents. She was born in Illinois in 1869. She grew up fascinated by chemistry and hair. When an illness forced her to quit school, she continued studying chemistry independently, eventually creating hair products specifically made for black women’s hair.

She was primarily invested in figuring out how to straighten black hair in a way that didn’t cause damage to hair follicles, the way current practices did. These included using butter, oils, and even bacon grease on their hair.

After some time, Annie developed a formula to straighten hair that was less harsh than the current methods. She decided to put it on display at the 1904 World’s Fair, which was being held in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1902, she moved to St. Louis and opened a shop selling haircare products. That’s where she met the woman who would become Madam CJ Walker and Sarah’s biggest competitor.

Madam CJ Walker

Madam CJ Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, a year and a few months after Juneteenth was celebrated in Texas. She was born in Louisiana and became orphaned by the age of 7. She married at 14, had a daughter, became a widow, then moved to St. Louis.

This was a time when bathing was considered a luxury for everyone except the wealthy. So, like many poor women of the time, Sarah began losing her hair.

Around 1904, she discovered Annie Turnbo, AKA “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower.” Annie advised Sarah on how to clean her scalp and hair, which was as essential to her Pro System as the formula for the hair straightener itself.

Convinced by Annie’s system, Sarah became a sales agent. After a few years, she married a successful businessman, CJ Walker, and thus became known as Madam CJ Walker. The couple moved to Denver, where Madam Walker started distributing her version of hair straightening formula, calling it “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.”

Madam CJ Walker sold more than just a product – she sold a lifestyle. By 1910, she had invested $10,000 of her own money into incorporating her business. In addition, she trained nearly 40,000 agents who sold her products in exchange for a healthy commission.

Madam CJ Walker is often credited with inventing the hot comb, but this distinction goes to a Frenchman, Marcel Grateau. However, Madam Walker improved the hot comb for black women by widening the teeth.

Christina Jenkins

Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam CJ Walker paved the way for other black women entrepreneurs, including Christina Jenkins.

Not much is known about Christina’s early life. However, we do know that she graduated from Leland College in 1943 with a science degree. We also know that she was working for a wig manufacturer in Chicago in 1949.

While working for the wig manufacturer, Christina began developing a new technique to improve wigs by making them fit on the head more securely. This turned into what we know as a weave. It was revolutionary for black women’s hair because it was a much more natural look, thanks to the interweaving of natural hair with commercial hair.

In 1952, Christina’s invention was patented. She began teaching the technique, which she called Hair-Weeve, to stylists and cosmetologists in the U.S. and Europe. She opened her own salon in Cleveland, which she ran until 1993.

Supporting Black Women Business Owners

In addition to helping me stay beautiful with their inventions and contributions to the haircare industry, these three black women entrepreneurs built a foundation for other black women business owners, including myself.

I encourage you to take some time this month to learn about black business leaders and support black businesses in your community.

To learn more about how At Ease Family Solutions can help your family with childcare, get in touch with us today!

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