Madam C. J. Walker, regarded as the first African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire, made her fortune on beauty products in the early 1900s, an era where millionaires were making their fortune through the monopoly of goods such as coal, lumber, and transportation.
Born to enslaved parents, she was widely known for her philanthropy and activism. But Before Walker became a haircare millionaire, and even before Annie Turnbo Malone became a beauty hero, there was Christiana Carteaux Bannister. Not many know about her and her story as her second husband’s achievements eclipsed hers.
Edward Mitchell Bannister, her second husband, was a well-known artist, who rose to fame thanks to the support he received from Christiana. She owned salons both in Boston and Worcester and thrived as an independent businesswoman who called herself a self-styled “hair doctress.” She used her fame and success to support her husband’s art career and other Black people around her while supporting the abolitionist cause.
However, while her husband is celebrated for his artistry, not much is known about Christiana, who did so much for him and the Black community despite being a haircare pioneer. Even when she passed away in 1902, she was buried next to her husband, but no marker was placed for her.
Born Christiana Babcock in Rhode Island somewhere between 1819 and 1820, her parents were of Black and Native American ancestry, and historians believe she was descended from enslaved men and women that worked the plantations of South County during the eighteenth century.
She learned hairdressing from her brother’s family. Her brother Charles, was the husband of Cecelia Remond, a hairdresser who came from a prominent family in Salem, Massachusetts. As Christiana learned the hairdressing trade from her brother’s family, she also got to mingle with prominent Black persons and abolitionists.
While in Boston, Christiana first worked as a hatmaker and married Desiline Carteaux, a clothes dealer. The two broke up in 1850. Between 1847 to 1871, Christiana operated a hair salon after having learned hairdressing. She would go on to operate four others. She called herself Madame Carteaux and advertised her business in William Lloyd Garrison‘s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, stating the services she offered, including dyeing and selling “a Hair Restorative, which cannot be excelled, as it produces new hair where baldness has taken place.”
Historians say that hair salons at the time catered to men but Christiana also advertised to women, stating in The Liberator that women would be “waited on at their residences, either in or out of town.”
Her hair salons also became popular meeting places for African American and white abolitionists, and it was through her haircare work that she met her second husband, Edward. He applied for work as a barber in her salon in Boston and after hiring him, the two married on June 10, 1857. Edward later left his job at the salon and followed his dream of becoming an artist with Christiana’s salon earnings.
“I would have made out very poorly had it not been for her … my greatest successes have come through her, either through her criticisms of my pictures, or the advice she would give me in the matter of placing them in public,” Edward later said of his wife.
While living in Boston, Edward and Christiana boarded with abolitionists Lewis and Harriet Bell Hayden. They worked with the Hayden family in operating Boston’s Underground Railroad helping runaway slaves escape to freedom. Christiana also used her status as a middle-class female business owner to help raise money to support the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of Black soldiers during the Civil War.
She continued to support her fellow Blacks after the Civil War by creating the Home for Aged and Colored Women, a nursing home for elderly Black women in Providence when she moved there in 1869. The home is today known as the Bannister Nursing Care Center. While in Providence, she opened another salon and became a patron of the arts.
Christiana earned wealth through her businesses but she passed away with little money. She reportedly suffered from dementia during her last days. After being buried next to her husband with no marker, Christiana finally received public recognition when a bronze sculpture bust of her was unveiled at the Rhode Island State House in 2002. She was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame the following year.
“Her legacy has continued for more than 100 years, which is terrific, but most people think [the Bannister Center] had something to do with Edward Bannister. But it wasn’t — it was her,” Jane Lancaster, faculty fellow in the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University, told Bustle in 2018. “She’s illustrative of that small but emerging Black middle class in the middle of the 19th century. Her husband has a lot of name recognition and I always thought it would be nice to know about the people around these famous men.”