Madam C. J. Walker

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Madam C. J. Walker
Madame CJ Walker.gif
Born Sarah Breedlove
December 23, 1867
Delta, Louisiana
Died May 25, 1919 (aged 51)
Irvington, 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. She made her fortune by developing and marketing a successful line of beauty and hair products for black women under the company she founded, Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.

Early life[edit]

Sarah Breedlove was born on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana to Owen and Minerva Breedlove who were share croppers.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] With both of her parents dead, Sarah was left an orphan at the age of six.[1]

Sarah moved in with her older sister and brother-in-law, Willie Powell. At the age of 14, she married Moses McWilliams to escape Powell's mistreatment, and three years later her daughter, Lelia McWilliams (A'Lelia Walker) was born. 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 and 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.[1][4]


After several years of working in steamy vapors of chemical and fumes, like many women of her era Sarah experienced hair loss.[1] Because most Americans lacked indoor plumbing, central heating and electricity, they bathed and washed their hair infrequently. She was confronted by Annie Turnbo Malone, an African American experimenting with hair care products, about being a commission agent for her hair product business. It was then said while working with Annie Malone that she adapted her knowledge of hair and hair products. During that year working for Annie Malone she reemerged with the name Madam C.J. Walker, an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams. She took the money from working as a commissioner, and made her own shampoos and rinses. She gave everyone the role model for a self-made businesswoman, with her managerial skills and marketing concepts. [1][5]

While working on her hair care products in Denver, she married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman. After their marriage Charles Walker took care of advertising and promotion, while Madam C. J. Walker continued to go door to door letting everyone she could know about her products. As they became more popular, she needed more help from others, and began training agent operators. All of her agent operators had to be able to tell Sarah’s story in an accurate and intelligent manner. She began to start "Walker Clubs" that were rewarded with cash prizes if they had done the most philanthropic work. 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.[1][4]

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. [1] Sarah, now known as Madam C. J. Walker, was becoming very successful. Her business market expanded farther than just United States to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica.[5]

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 got 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]

After the Silent Protest Parade, she joined leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in their efforts to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime. In 1918, at the biennial convention of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), she was acknowledged for making the largest contribution to save the Anacostia (Washington, DC) house of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. She continued to donate money throughout her career to the NAACP, the YMCA, and to black schools, organizations, individuals, orphanages, and retirement homes.

The grave of Madam C. J. Walker

In 1917, she moved to her Irvington-on-Hudson, New York estate, Villa Lewaro,[6] which had been designed by Vertner Tandy, the first licensed black architect in New York State and a founding member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. The house cost $250,000 to build.[6]

Just before her death she pledged $5,000, which was equivalent to about $65,000 in today's dollars, to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's anti-lynching fund. Madam C. J. Walker died at Villa Lewaro on Sunday, May 25, 1919 from complications of hypertension. She was 51. In her will she directed two-thirds of future net profits of her estate to charity and bequeathing.[5] 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."[6] Her daughter, A'Lelia Walker, became the president of the Madam C.J Walker Manufacturing Company.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Ingham, John N. "Walker, Madame C.J"; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
  2. ^ Madison Parish 1850 census, Rootsweb, Ancestry,com
  3. ^ A'Lelia Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, New York: Scribner (2001).
  4. ^ a b Evans, Harold. They Made America. Boston: Little, Brown, 2004
  5. ^ a b c d A'Lelia Bundles. "Business Savvy to Philanthropy."Making Their Mark: Black Women Leaders 16 (2012).
  6. ^ a b c "Wealthiest Negress Dead". New York Times. May 26, 1919. Retrieved 2011-02-03. 

Further reading[edit]

Nonfiction Biographies (which are based on primary source documents)

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