February is Black History Month! To do my part in providing a tribute, every Tuesday this month I will be sharing inspirational stories about an African-American who is not commonly known, in the hope that their remarkable lives will be a source of encouragement to you.
Let us begin with the lovely lady pictured above, whose image was placed on United States postal stamps in 1998: Madam C.J. Walker.
Madam Walker's story is truly a rags-to-riches tale. Her parents were slaves who had just been emancipated when she was born in Louisiana in 1867. She was orphaned at the age of seven, and then married at fourteen years. When Madam Walker was twenty years, tragedy struck again as her husband died, leaving her as the sole supporter of their daughter.
She worked washing dishes during the day to provide for herself and her child. Then, because Madam Walker wanted what had previously been denied her, she went to night classes and received an education for the first time.
Madam Walker faced yet another disappointment when she developed a scalp disorder that caused her to lose most of her hair. But she turned that challenge into an opportunity, and invented specialized hair products for African-American women.
She worked very hard promoting her business, traveling throughout the country selling her hair products. Madam Walker's hair balm was such a success that she ended up opening several factories across the nation. Sales from her hair product became high enough that Madam Walker has the distinction of being the first female American millionaire.
I first learned about Madam Walker about two years ago, and I've never been able to forget her story. The hardships that she faced were incredible - losing both parents then her husband, and at such a young age. I respect her determination to receive an education, and I think it's admirable that she invented a hair product that made millions of women feel more beautiful.
From being born a daughter of just-freed slaves to becoming a millionaire businesswoman, Madam Walker is an amazing example that despite the harsh circumstances of the past, we can choose to work toward a better future for ourselves.
We cannot help where we are born, and we cannot choose the challenges that come to us. But we can decide to have an attitude of determination that can help us overcome anything.