Last week, I watched Netflix’s new premiere, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker, which is based on the biography, On Her Own Ground by A’Lelia Bundles. After battling a scalp ailment that resulted in hair loss, Madam C. J. Walker (a.k.a. Sarah Breedlove) invented a line of African American hair products that she promoted by traveling around the country. She eventually established Madame C. J. Walker Laboratories to manufacture cosmetics and train sales beauticians. This elevated her to become the first black “millionairess” in America.
In Self Made, Walker diligently attempted to garner the endorsement of Booker T. Washington at the 1912 National Negro Business League (NNBL) Convention in Chicago. He had established the NNBL in 1900, asserting that Black entrepreneurship was an economic solution to racial discrimination. He proclaimed that once African Americans had attained economic independence, they can petition successfully for voting rights and to an end to segregation. League members included small business owners, doctors, farmers, lawyers, craftsmen, etc.
In Self Made, Walker tenaciously storms the stage when she observed that Washington was snubbing her request to speak. She endorses herself and promotes the inclusion of female entrepreneurship to assist in the advancement of the Black business community. Not depicted in Self Made, Walker continued her quest to win him over. A year later, in July 1913, Washington surprisingly accepted her invitation to be her houseguest for the dedication of a new Indianapolis YMCA. Consequently, their relationship blossomed, and at the Tuskegee Institute’s 1913 NNBL Convention, Washington endorsed Walker as “a striking example of the possibilities of Negro womanhood in the business world.” (1)
I recently discovered that the following year, Booker T. Washington requested that my mother’s maternal grandmother’s sister, Madam Mattie Ella Danner Hockenhull, present her work at the 1914 NNBL Convention, held in Muskogee, Oklahoma. On 18 August 1914, the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic newspaper (Pine Bluff, Arkansas) wrote, “Mme M. E. Hockenhull of 627 E. Sixth Avenue, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, by the request of Booker T. Washington, president of the National Negro Business League, which holds its Fifteenth Annual meet in Muskogee, Okla., Aug. 19-22, will appear in ten different costumes, including hand-printed gowns, demonstrating before the national body her work in dressmaking, millinery and beauty culture.” (article below)
I first learned about Aunt Mattie from my dear cousin, the late Vivian Jones, in 1997. While my great-grandmother, Mary Danner Davis, was Aunt Mattie’s sister, Cousin Vivian’s grandmother, Frances Danner Howard, was also her sister. Cousin Vivian shared how our Aunt Mattie was a dressmaker and had also owned a beauty parlor in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. She even showed me the same picture of her that’s in the aforementioned 1914 article.
Aunt Mattie was the youngest of the four daughters born to a Civil War, USCT veteran, Edward Danner, Sr., and Louisa Bobo Danner on 13 May 1873, in Panola County (Como), Mississippi. My great-grandmother Mary was the oldest daughter, and they also had six brothers. In Aunt Mattie’s 73-page booklet, Book of Introduction of Improved Method in Beauty Culture, Mme. Hockenhull’s System, her biography states, “She received her early training from the public schools of Panola County. Her mind was both artistic and scientific from childhood. Her first impression was to become a fashionable dress maker. At the age of nine, she could cut and make garments perfectly. She was exceedingly studious during her early life and most always stood at the head of her class. Having left the public school, her friends insisted that she engaged in teaching. They finally prevailed upon her and she, therefore, passed a very creditable examination before the board of education of her county, where she taught for a number of years.”
After her first marriage to Rev. John Gray had failed, Aunt Mattie and her young son, Isaac, left Mississippi and moved to Pine Bluff, Arkansas by 1910. She soon married Robert Hockenhull in 1910, and they purchased and operated the city’s first hotel for African Americans. Newspaper articles show that they were arrested for selling alcohol in their hotel, but they were soon pardoned. Aunt Mattie also opened her own shop, called Ladies Choice Millinery Store and Beauty Parlor at 627 E. Sixth Street.
Like the legendary Madam C. J. Walker and Annie Malone, she also manufactured her own hair products. Her 11 December 1912 newspaper ad states, “I manufacture the best hair oil known for falling hair. Growing hair – dandruff cure. It invigorates the roots, relieves all affections of the hair and scalp. Use Mme. Hockenhull’s Temple Grower. Grows hair on bald heads and bare temples ….. Guaranteed by Mme. Hockenhull under the Foods and Drugs Act, June 30th, 1906, Serial No. 47080.” (ad below) Her fashion in millinery (hat-making), dress-making, and her hair products captured Booker T. Washington’s attention, and thus he invited her to present at the 1914 NNBL Convention.
By 1930, Aunt Mattie, now a twice divorcee, and her son Isaac left Arkansas and moved to Chicago. There, Cousin Isaac Lane Gray Hockenhull, a Tuskegee Institute graduate, met and married the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson. They later divorced. Aunt Mattie died on 18 December 1937 and was laid to rest in Restvale Cemetery. Her death certificate reports her occupation as “manufacture,” giving evidence that she continued her business in Chicago after leaving Arkansas. Although her name and products didn’t seem to reach the level of Madam C. J. Walker and Annie Malone, her accomplishments during the early 1900s are nothing short of remarkable.
(1) Bundles, A’Lelia. On Her Own Ground, page 100.