Updated: May 12
Sarah Breedlove, who would later be known as Madam C.J. Walker, was born on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. She is known for being an entrepreneur, philanthropist, social activist, and one of the first self-made Black female millionaires in the United States. Her parents were slaves, but were freed from slavery before the end of the Civil War. She was one of six children, but was the first member of the family to be freed from slavery. Life was not easy for Breedlove because she grew up poor, lost her parents at the age of 7, received little education and she started working at a very young age.
At the age of 14, she married a man named Moses McWilliams and later gave birth to a daughter named A’Lelia on June 6, 1885. Three years later, her husband died, and she and her daughter moved to St. Louis, where three of Breedlove’s brothers worked as barbers. She started working as a laundress and made enough money to send her daughter to school.
In her early 30s, she started experiencing scalp issues, which caused her to lose hair. To fix her scalp condition, she tried a number of store-bought products and experimented with many home remedies. Frustrated by a lack of useful options, she created her own hair growth products, which were catered toward Black women. She moved to Denver, Colorado in 1905 and married Charles J. Walker, which is how her adopted name, “Madam C.J. Walker” was created. She started selling her hair care products door-to-door in Black neighborhoods. Her husband helped her with the advertising and establishing a mail order system, and they travelled throughout the United States to promote their business. In 1908, she opened Lelia College in Pittsburg to train Black women on how to style hair.
In light of her business's growing success, in 1910, Walker moved to Indianapolis to build her business's headquarters, a laboratory and a beauty school, which she called the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. In 1913, Walker divorced her husband and worked on expanding her business into the Caribbean and Latin America. In 1917, she relocated to New York, and resided in a mansion called Villa Lewaro. When her business’s headquarters was initially built, she employed over 3,000 sales agents; by 1919, she employed over 20,000 agents. Working at a very young age, traveling constantly, and managing her business took a toll on her health over time. She died at home on May 25, 1919 at the age of 51, as a result of kidney failure and complications from hypertension. After her death, her daughter, A’Lelia, took over the company and became the president of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.
Madam C.J. Walker made a huge impact on the world due to her legacy as a successful Black female entrepreneur. She created jobs for over 20,000 Black people, created hair care products specifically tailored to Black people, and encouraged Black people to be proud of their natural hair. As her business grew, Walker allocated parts of her profits towards helping the Black community by improving their lives and helping them escape poverty. She even made time to encourage her employees to donate to the community.Additionally, she helped provide scholarships for seven Black students at the Tuskegee Institute, and opened a YMCA dedicated to Black people. She donated to churches, hospitals, senior homes, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Anti-Lynching Fund, and the National Conference on Lynching. In her will, she directed two-thirds of her estates’ future net profits be donated to various charity organizations. She also fought against prejudice, discrimination and racism. For example, she filed a lawsuit against a theater in Indianapolis because of discrimination, advocated for Black army officers to receive training camp, protested the War Department’s segregationist policies to President Woodrow Wilson, and fought for anti-lynching laws. Although she died over 100 years ago, she continues to inspire others, and her impact on the Black community has created endless possibilities to help them flourish to this day.
Business Women, How the Story of Madam C.J. Walker Impacted the History of American Entrepreneurs
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Thought Co., Biography of Madam C.J. Walker, American Entrepreneur and Beauty Mogul
Women & The American Story, Life Story: Sarah “Madam C.J.” Breedlove Walker (1867-1919)
64 Parishes, Madam C. J. Walker