Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was an entrepreneur and philanthropist whose successful creation of hair products specifically designed for African American hair in turn made her the first woman to become a self-made millionaire in America. Born with little-to-nothing, Walker helped provide for others throughout her life and beyond--leaving two-thirds of her wealth to charities and educational institutions.
Born two days before Christmas on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana, Walker was Owen and Minerva’s the fifth child, but she was their first free-born kin. Unfortunately, both her parents died when she was very young, leaving Walker an orphan at only the age of seven.
Walker moved in with her sister Louvinia and her sister’s husband. When Walker was 10, the three moved to Mississippi. Here Walker worked on a cotton plantation. Due to treatment of her brother in-law and harsh work environments, Walker escaped by way of marriage to Moses McWilliams at the mere age of 14.
In 1885, Walker and Moses had a daughter, A'Lelia. However, two years later Moses died, leaving Walker a widow and a mother at not even 20 years old. The young mom and child left for the "Gateway to the West," also known as St. Louis. With her brothers nearby, working as barbers, Walker found a way to earn $1.50 per day as a washerwoman. This was just enough to send A’Lelia to public school. It was in St. Louis that Walker first met Charles J. Walker, an advertising man whom she would marry years later.
Finding her Calling
At the turn of the century, Walker started struggling with hair loss and a scalp problem. She sought to find a household remedies and began testing product solutions. In 1905, Walker was hired by a black hair care product entrepreneur, whom she’d met during the St. Louis World’s Fair, and moved to Denver. In Denver, Walker split to begin working on her own hair and beauty products specifically for African American women. In 1906, while in Colorado, she also married Charles and officially became Madam C.J. Walker--a name she gave to the hair and cosmetics line and manufacturing company she founded.
Initially marketing herself as an independent hairdresser and cosmetics retailer, Walker began expanding, along with the help of some of her husband’s sales expertise and advice. Walker also began selling her products door-to-door and taking mail orders.
The family moved to Pittsburgh where Walker opened up a beauty and training saloon, which she left for her daughter to run while establishing a new headquarters in Indianapolis in 1910. Walker and Charles also toured and promoted Walker’s hair and cosmetic products, teaching “The Walker System,” which promoted hair growth and treated hair loss through the use of her products.
Walker’s Manufacturing Company became one of the largest employers of African American women, with a 3,000-person sales force.
Walker and Charles divorced in 1913, but Walker continued her work. She traveled to promote her products and hair treatment methods in Latin America and the Caribbean, while her daughter established a new base for the business in Harlem. Walker joined her daughter in New York in 1916, leaving the business's day-to-day operations in Indianapolis.
Throughout her life and career, Walker generously supported African American communities not only through employment, but also by founding philanthropies, getting involved with charities and creating educational scholarships. Walker died at only 51 due to complications with hypertension; however, her business and her commitment toward helping others continued--even in death. Walker left two-thirds of her wealth toward charitable causes and is still remembered for her generosity, ambition and for the dreams she inspired others to conceive.
Several years before her death, Walker told Booker T. Washington, “I have built my own factory on my own ground.... Not for myself alone, but to do all the good I can for the uplift of my race.”