Madame C.J. Walker née Sarah Breedlove was the first female self-made millionaire in America and one of the most successful African-American business owners in history. At the time of her death in 1919, the haircare magnate had amassed a wealth of $600,000 to $700,000 (equivalent to approximately 6 to $7 million in today’s dollars) and had commissioned the building of the Madame Walker Theatre Center in Indiana, Indianapolis which saw completion in 1927 (the theater received National Historic Landmark status in 1991).
Born on December 23, 1867, on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana, for Sarah Breedlove, early life was anything but easy. One of six children, Sarah was the first in her family to be born out of slavery. Orphaned by the age of 7, by the time she was 10 years old, Sarah was earning her keep by working as a domestic servant in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
By the age of 14, Sarah was married to her first husband, Moses McWilliams, the father of her only child, daughter Lelia McWilliams (later A’lelia Walker). That union ended in divorce and by the late 1880’s, she was living in Saint Louis, Missouri, working as a laundress and earning less than a dollar a day. Nevertheless, Sarah was steeled by a desire to succeed and provide her daughter with a formal education and a better quality of life.
Opportunity presented itself in haircare. As an active member of the local African American church and community, Sarah soon recognized the need for suitable hair care products which would be less damaging and aggravating to the scalp. By the early 1900’s Sarah was working as a commission agent selling products for the Poro Company, a future competitor.
Informed by her experience as a salesperson, firsthand research, and, most likely, the insights she garnered from her three brothers, who were barbers, Sarah set out to create a hair care line specifically designed for African American women. Following her marriage to newspaper salesman Charles Walker in 1906 (also her business partner), Walker assumed the name “Madame C.J. Walker” and marketed herself as an independent hairdresser and purveyor of cosmetic creams.
Walker sold her products door to door and, as business grew, she hired and trained a staff of “beauty culturists” who specialized in teaching African American women how to style their hair with Madame C.J. Walker products. By 1917 Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company had trained 20,000 women and by the 1920’s the company’s products were being sold door-to-door in Cuba, Panama, Costa Rica, and the Caribbeans. A’lelia Walker, her daughter and heir, served a critical role in her mother’s operations and went on to serve as the company’s president for the remainder of her life.
From the humble beginnings of a cotton field in the South, Madame Walker ultimately became an important philanthropist who gave vast amounts of money to support African American leaders and artists. By the time of her death at the age of 51, Madame C.J. Walker could count Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and W. E. B. Du Bois among her friends and associates. We recognize Madame C.J. Walker as an inspiration for all Americans and as an important person in African American History.