Madam C. J. Walker

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Madam C. J. Walker
Madame CJ Walker.gif
Walker, c. early 1900s
Born Sarah Breedlove
December 23, 1867
Delta, Louisiana, U.S.
Died May 25, 1919 (aged 51)
Irvington-on-Hudson, New York
Nationality American
Children A'Lelia Walker
Madam Walker and several friends in her automobile

Sarah Breedlove (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919), known as Madam C. J. Walker, was an American entrepreneur and philanthropist, regarded as the first female self-made millionaire in America.[1][2] She made her fortune by developing and marketing a successful line of beauty and hair products for black women under the company she founded, Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.

Early life[edit]

Sarah Breedlove was born on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana.[3] She was one of six children; she had a sister, Louvenia, and four brothers: Alexander, James, Solomon, and Owen Jr. Her parents and elder siblings were slaves on Madison Parish plantation, owned by Robert W. Burney. She was the first child in her family born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Her mother died, possibly from cholera, in 1872. Her father remarried and died shortly afterward. Sarah, orphaned at the age of seven, moved in with her older sister Louvenia and brother inlaw Willie Powell. At the age of 14, she married Moses McWilliams to escape Powell's mistreatment, and three years later her daughter, Lelia McWilliams, was born.[4] When Sarah was 20, her husband died, and Lelia was just 2 years old. Shortly afterward she moved to St. Louis, where three of her brothers lived. They were all barbers at a local barbershop. She managed to get a job as a washer woman. She barely earned more than a dollar a day but was determined to make enough money so that her daughter would be able to receive a formal education.[5]


Sarah experienced scalp disorder and lost a lot of hair primarily because of harsh products like lye that were included in soaps used to cleanse the hair.[6][7] Because most Americans lacked indoor plumbing, central heating and electricity, they bathed and washed their hair infrequently. Initially she learned about hair care from her brothers, who owned a barber shop in St. Louis.[6]

A container of Madame C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower is held in the permanent collection of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis.
Madame C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower in the permanent collection of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis.[8]

Around the time of the 1904 World's Fair, she became a commission agent selling products for Annie Turnbo Malone, an African American hair care entrepreneur. While working with Annie Malone, she adapted her knowledge of hair and hair products. She moved to Denver to work on her hair care products, and married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman. She emerged with the name Madam C. J. Walker, an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams. After their marriage Charles Walker provided advice on advertising and promotion, while Madam C. J. Walker trained women to become "beauty culturists" and to learn the art of selling. In 1906, Madam Walker put her daughter A'Lelia (née McWilliams) in charge of the mail order operation while she and her husband traveled throughout the southern and eastern United States to expand the business.[6][7][5]

While her daughter Lelia (later known as A'Lelia Walker) ran the mail order business from Denver, Madam Walker and her husband traveled throughout the southern and eastern states. They settled in Pittsburgh in 1908 and opened Lelia College to train "hair culturists." In 1910 Walker moved to Indianapolis where she established her headquarters and built a factory, hair salon, and beauty school to train her sales agents. She later added a laboratory to help with research.[7] Sarah, now known as Madam C. J. Walker, was becoming very successful. Her business market expanded beyond the United States to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica.[6] [5]

Inspired by the model of the National Association of Colored Women, she began to organize her sales agents into local and state clubs. In 1917 she convened her first annual conference of the Madam Walker Beauty Culturists in Philadelphia. During the convention she gave prizes not only to the women who had sold the most products and brought in the most new sales agents, but also to those who had contributed the most to charity in their communities. She stressed the importance of philanthropy and political engagement.[6] This had a huge impact on expanding her business. She also started her own mail order business to keep up with the booming business, placing her daughter A’Lelia Walker in charge of it.[7][9]

She began to teach and train other black women in women's independence, budgeting, and grooming in order to help them build their own businesses. She also gave lectures on political, economic and social issues at conventions sponsored by powerful black institutions. In 1917 she started the Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention, which ended up being the first national meeting of American women brought together to discuss business and commerce. She became involved in political matters, joining the executive committee of the Silent Protest Parade. It was a public demonstration of more than 8,000 African Americans to protest a riot that killed 39 African Americans.[5]

The grave of Madam C. J. Walker

In 1917, she commissioned Vertner Tandy, the first licensed black architect in New York State and a founding member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, to design a house for her in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, Villa Lewaro.[10]The house cost $250,000 to build.[10] She moved into Villa Lewaro in May 1918 and hosted an opening event to honor Emmett Scott, then the Assistant Secretary for Negro Affairs of the United States War Department.[6]

Just before her death she pledged $5,000, the equivalent of about $65,000 in 2012, to the NAACP's anti-lynching fund. Madam C. J. Walker died at Villa Lewaro on Sunday, May 25, 1919,[4][10] from complications of hypertension. She was 51. In her will she directed two-thirds of future net profits of her estate to charity; she bequeathed nearly $100,000 to orphanages, institutions, and individuals.[5][1] At her death she was considered to be the wealthiest African-American woman in America. According to Walker's New York Times obituary, "she said herself two years ago [in 1917] that she was not yet a millionaire, but hoped to be some time."[10] Her daughter, A'Lelia Walker, became the president of the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.[6]


  1. ^ a b "Madam C. J. Walker". The Philanthropy Hall of Fame. Philanthropy Roundtable. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  2. ^ "Madam C.J. Walker History". Madame C.J. Walker's. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  3. ^ Bundles, A’Lelia. "Madam C.J. Walker". Madame C.J. Walker. Retrieved 25 February 2015. 
  4. ^ a b "Madam C.J. Walker". Indiana Historical Society. Retrieved 28 February 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Bundles, A'Lelia (February 2012). "Madam C.J. Walker: Business Savvy to Philanthropy" (PDF). eJournal USA (U.S. Department of State) 16 (6): 3-5. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g A'Lelia Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, New York: Scribner (2001).
  7. ^ a b c d Ingham, John N. "Walker, Madame C.J"; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
  8. ^ "Madam C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower product container". The Indianapolis Public Library. Retrieved 2 March 2015. 
  9. ^ Evans, Harold. They Made America. Boston: Little, Brown, 2004
  10. ^ a b c d "Wealthiest Negress Dead". New York Times. May 26, 1919. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

Nonfiction Biographies (which are based on primary source documents)

Fiction/Novels (which include fictionalized information)

Video links[edit]

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