The gripping story of America’s first black female millionaire was researched by Alex Haley; after his death, the materials were handed on to novelist and former Miami Herald columnist and feature writer Due (My Soul To Keep, 1998, etc.)—an inspired choice.
The story opens in Delta, Louisiana, nine years after the Civil War, with freed slaves just about as badly off as before. Sarah Breedlove’s parents die of Yellow Jack, leaving Sarah and older sister Louvenia orphaned and forced to support themselves, largely by picking cotton and washing clothes, until the boll weevil kills that income. Sarah moves to Vicksburg and lives with married Louvenia, whose husband whips the child, saying she must quit school to help new-mother Louvenia. Sarah, however, is a self-starter and on Saturdays sets up her own fried-fish stand, where she meets her first husband, Moses, a train-polisher. When Moses is murdered by whites, Sarah supports their daughter Lelia by herself, still washing clothes. Her lifelong scalp problem leads her to invent a petroleum/sulfur emollient to clear up the problem—and, surprisingly, it grows hair as well. Combining the mix with the use of a hot steel comb, Sarah finds that rough black hair can be softened and straightened into flowing locks. When C. J. Walker, a Denver advertising drummer, tells her she’ll never beat out the inferior rival product Poro, also made in Vicksburg, she moves to Denver, sets up a factory, and marries Walker, whose selfishness disappoints her greatly. Before she dies, Sarah is a millionaire living in a villa filled with costly art; she is a philanthropist, a speaker for the NAACP, and the founder of programs for Negroes. Her intense focus on business and earning, however, alienates her daughter, who herself becomes famous in Harlem for her literary salon.
Tremendous storytelling power.