Spotlight on Black Entrepreneurs in Milwaukee
The origins of Black History Month date back to as early as 1926, when Carter G. Woodson initiated Negro History Week. The month of February had been chosen as a tribute to Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, who both have birthdays in the month. This week, however, was not meant to celebrate them, but to honor the black history aligned with the two men and recognize the celebrations that had been held since their time. Woodson's goal was to celebrate “the people” who made Black history what it is.
The initiative of Negro History Week gained momentum and before long had spread across the county. Demand soared and captured the attention of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). Together, they formed branches across the country and continued advocating for the teaching of Black history. Despite Woodson’s concerns that Negro History Week would falter with his passing, the ASALH was able to expand the weekly celebration to an entire month in 1976. This took place nearly 50 years after the first celebration.
Continuing Woodson’s celebration of the people during this Black History Month, we’ve put the spotlight on one of the first, and most widely known, black female entrepreneurs in our history, Madam C.J. Walker. Sarah Breedlove was born in December of 1867 to parents who had been enslaved up until the end of the Civil War. Being orphaned at age 7, she knew that she would have to work for herself to survive. So, she did just that, taking on various jobs from picking cotton to working in her brothers’ barber shop.
During the 1890s she began losing her hair, and after asking her brothers for advice, started experimenting with various homemade remedies and other hair care products.
With her third marriage, she changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker and started selling “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula”. She traveled for over a year, selling products door to door and working on marketing strategies. Her business continued growing and expanding, reaching Central America and the Caribbean before she settled in New York. At the time of her passing, Madam C.J. Walker’s estate was worth approximately $700,000, or $12.4 million today.
photo credits: Madam Walker Family Archives/A'Lelia Bundles
Madam C.J. Walker’s story proves that with determination and hard work, entrepreneurs can achieve their dreams. As one of the first Black entrepreneurs in history, she is a shining example of Woodson’s definition of Black history, history made by the people.
Milwaukee Central Library’s Business Commons section, located on the second floor of the building, was renovated in October 2022 and is designed with your business needs in mind. There are tables, counters, booths, and other unique seating arrangements intended to accommodate meetings, study sessions, business research and development, and more. The Business Commons is open to the public and can be reserved by visiting MPL.org/libraryspaces.
Not only does MPL offer a space to meet, the library offers a host of business-related programs as well as a large variety of business resources and databases to help you get your feet off the ground. One such database is DemographicsNow, a Gale database that provides statistics that help users make informed decisions on potential business locations and neighborhoods, the demographics of that area, and other businesses in the area. To learn more about this and other databases available, please visit www.mpl.org/other_resources/business.php
While some of these databases can be found online for free, many are accessible only with a library card, so don’t forget to visit your neighborhood library branch to sign up for your card.