Madam C.J. Walker was the first female self-made millionaire in America; she was also the first black female millionaire. Despite racism being rife in the country, Madam C.J. built an empire from nothing, developing a line of hair and beauty products for black women. She is also remembered for being a civil rights activist
Born on 23rd December 1867 in Louisiana to Owen and Minerva Breedlove, Madam C.J. was originally known as Sarah. She had one sister and four brothers, the elder of whom were born into slavery. Sarah was the first Breedlove child to be born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862. Sadly, her mother passed away from cholera in 1872 and her father died the following year.
From the age of ten, Sarah was brought up in Mississippi by her much older sister Louvenia and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell. Around the same time, Sarah began working as a domestic servant. As an orphan, she had no time or money to go to school and the only education she received was at Sunday school before the death of her parents.
Sarah had a rough time living with Louvenia. Jesse was an abusive man and Sarah took the first opportunity to escape from the household: getting married. Sarah was only 14 years old when she married Moses McWilliams in 1882. Three years later, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, A’Lelia (1885-1931), but in 1887, their lives were shattered by the death of Moses.
To earn money, Sarah moved to St Louis, Missouri where her brothers lived to work as a laundress. She was determined to earn enough money to send her daughter to school, which was a difficult task earning less than $1 a day. Sarah also wanted to live an educated life and was jealous of the educated women at the African Methodist Episcopal Church she attended.
In 1894, Sarah married John Davis, but their marriage was not a happy one and she left him in 1903. Meanwhile, Sarah was battling with severe dandruff, leading to baldness, which was a common problem for black women at the time. Hair products were made for white-skinned customers and were unsuitable for African-Americans.
Sarah knew a little about haircare from her brothers who were barbers, but she was determined to do something about the quality of products available for black women. In 1904, she became an agent for Annie Malone (1877-1957), a black inventor and businesswoman who specialised in cosmetics. Using the knowledge she gained working for Malone, Sarah began to develop her own products, meanwhile, she continued to work for Malone in Denver, Colorado where she had moved in 1905. When Malone found out about Sarah’s products, she accused her of stealing the formula, despite it having been around for centuries. From then on, Sarah and Malone were rivals.
In 1906, Sarah married a newspaper advertising salesman, Charles Joseph Walker (d.1926), and took on his name. Soon she was known as Madam C.J. Walker, a name which she marketed her products under. To begin with, Sarah sold her products door-to-door whilst her husband began to arrange advertising and promotion. When business improved, A'Lelia became involved with the business, setting up a mail-order operation in their home. Charles and Sarah travelled to the southern states to promote the business, eventually moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to set up a beauty parlour and training college.
A’Lelia joined Madam C.J. in Pittsburgh in 1907 and persuaded her mother to open a beauty salon and office in New York. In 1910, Madam C.J. relocated to Indianapolis where she established the headquarters for the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company and began hiring staff to help with the management.
Despite competition, Madam C.J.’s products were popular because they helped hair to regrow and prevented them from becoming brittle. Between 1911 and 1919, she employed thousands of women and trained over 20,000 people. Unfortunately, Charles and Sarah divorced in 1912, meaning she lost her business partner.
As well as training her staff in haircare, she taught black women how to build their own business and become financially independent. In 1917, she established the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents, which welcomed 200 people to its first annual conference. This was also the first-ever conference for businesswomen in the USA.
"I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground." This is what Madam C.J. told the National Negro Business League (NNBL) when she spoke at one of their meetings in 1912. As well as concentrating on her business, Madam C.J. involved herself in many good causes, wishing to put her well-earned money to good use.
Madam C.J. helped to raise funds for the YMCA and donated money to various churches and schools. She also became a patron of the arts and became friends with notable people, such as the author, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), and civil rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). In 1917, she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the following year the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC), making sizable monetary donations to both.
Around this time, Madam C.J. began to suffer from kidney failure and hypertension, passing away on 25th May 1919 at the age of 51. At her death, she was estimated to be worth almost one million dollars, making her the wealthiest African-American woman in the country. Her daughter took over the company as its president, which continued to operate until 1981.
Madam C.J. Walker has been honoured several times since her death, including in recent years. Her company’s building in Indianapolis has been designated a National Historic Landmark, which now houses the Madam Walker Legacy Centre. In 2006, American actress and playwright Regina Taylor wrote The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove about Madam C.J.’s journey from rags to riches. Her most recent honour occurred in 2016 when the French beauty company Sephora launched a line of hair products called "Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture", which are suitable for many different hair types.
Not only did Madam C.J. Walker create a successful business at a time when black people were struggling for equality, but she also improved the lives of thousands of others. Thanks to her, black women were able to start their own business thus helping them to escape from poverty and oppression. Madam C.J. was also a huge inspiration for future hair care and cosmetic businesses and will continue to be looked up to in years to come.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon