Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) was one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire through her company, Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing. Though she had no formal education, she gained a wide reputation as an African American entrepreneur in the cosmetics industry and manufacturer of a hair remedy, which she coined the “Walker System.” She was also known for her philanthropy and political and social activism. She empowered women to become independent sales agents of her product line and opened opportunities for African American women to engage in business for themselves.
She was born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana in December 1867, two years after the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. She was the first in her family to be born free. Life was not easy still; the Breedlove family were poor sharecroppers and shared an income with the owner of the land they farmed. She became an orphan at the age of seven and went to live with her older sister and brother-in-law in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where she took a job as a laundress or washerwoman, backbreaking and strenuous work.
Breedlove married when she was fourteen and though she became a widow from her first marriage, she also became a mother to a daughter, A’Lelia. The family soon moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where they joined her older brothers who worked as barbers. It was through their influence and her work as a commission agent selling Annie Malone’s products that she learned methods for treating black women’s hair and was inspired to create her own line of hair care products for African Americans.
When strands of her thick black hair began falling out due to an illness, she created a “hair growing” elixir and soon her hair was growing in faster than it was falling out. Rumors of the results of her successful products spread quickly and she re-branded her business with the name, Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. The Madam (sometimes spelled Madame) was a nod to the French beauty industry and Charles Joseph Walker was the name of her second husband.
She always had big dreams and goals for herself and community. She opened the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis, Indiana which featured a beauty school, a laboratory and a hair salon. Her approach to advertising was aggressive; she used proceeds from her sale of her products for advertisements that appeared in African American newspapers as soon as they came in. Her marketing strategy paid off and demand for her products grew. Along with her husband, she traveled across the country by train to sell and teach women how to use the hair preparations. Many African American women were using products created specifically for their hair for the first time in their lives.
As a result of her successful business, Madam Walker became wealthy and she wanted to help people in her community–black people who struggled like she had. Walker donated to churches, hospitals, and schools and encouraged her sales agents to follow her lead. She started an annual conference for her employees and provided awards to those who raised the most for charity organizations.
The intention behind purchasing her house, Villa Lewaro in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, was to create a gathering place for African American leaders, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes, and to inspire other community members. It is now a National Historic Landmark. Walker used her influence to serve her community and speak out against the lynching of black men and women and donated to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund. Even after her death in May 1919, her popular international hair care empire continued to expand and her legacy of dreaming big and donating to important charities lives on.
For more on Madam C.J. Walker’s life, read this Inside Adams blog post and check out the book by her great-great-granddaughter and official biographer, A’Lelia Perry Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker and the book, Madam C.J. Walker: Inventor and Millionaire, by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack. You can also search for more coverage of Walker in our Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection, jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.