Madam C.J. Walker
First African-American Female Millionaire
Madam C.J. Walker was a highly successful entrepreneur of the early twentieth century and was also well known as a social activist and philanthropist. Besides being noted as the first female African-American millionaire, Madam Walker was renowned for her stirring political and social advocacy and her humanitarian efforts. An early promoter of women’s economic independence, she provided well-paying jobs for thousands of African-American women who otherwise would have been employed as domestic help and manual laborers.
Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to Minerva and Owen Breedlove on the shores of the Mississippi River in Delta, Louisiana. Her parents were ex-slaves living on the Burney plantation in Delta and Sarah was the first child of their born in freedom. As a child, Sarah suffered much loss. Her mother died when she was only seven years old and though her father remarried rather quickly he also died before she turned eight. Because her family was poor, her educational opportunities were limited and she received little formal education.
When she was a mere fourteen years old, Sarah married Moses McWilliams so that she might have a home. Making their home in Vicksburg, together they had one daughter, A’Lelia who was born in 1885. Moses died in 1887, leaving the widowed Sarah to provide for her family. She moved with her daughter to St. Louis, Missouri. For the next eighteen years Sarah supported herself and her daughter by obtaining work as a washerwoman.
In 1905, while still living in St. Louis, Sarah had an idea to begin a cosmetics business. She began to develop a hair care and grooming system for African-American women that would heal scalp disease through more frequent shampooing, massage, and an application of her special ointment. She also devised a method for these women to straighten their hair. Before this time African-American women who wanted to de-kink their hair had to iron it with a flat iron with their hair placed on a flat surface. Sarah devised a system to straighten hair that used her hair softener with the aid of a straightening comb.
Encouraged by her success in St. Louis selling her cosmetics and method, Sarah moved to Denver, Colorado in July, 1905 where she was joined by her close friend C.J. Walker, a newspaperman. They were married six months later and though they divorced six years later, she kept the name that became famous.
Madam Walker sold her cosmetics and method door-to-door, giving demonstrations to the women of Denver. She also enlisted the help of other women hired as agent-operators to sell her products. These women became known as “hair culturists” and “scalp specialists”. Walker required her agents to sign a contract binding them to a hygienic regimen and in her meetings with them she stressed the importance of cleanliness and attractiveness as an aid to self-respect and racial advancement.
With others selling her method and product for her, Madam Walker was able to concentrate her efforts on the instruction of her methods and on the manufacture of her product line. In 1910 she built a plant in Indianapolis, Indiana that would serve as a center of the Walker enterprises. The company had many branches including the Walker College of Hair Culture and Walker Manufacturing Company, remained in business until it was sold in 1985. The Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company provided employment for over three thousand people and Walker herself claimed that her multi-level sales force had over 20,000 agents by 1919.
Madam Walker was a generous donor to black charities and was active in black philanthropic work. In fact, she made the largest single donation to the National Association of Colored Women’s effort to buy the home of Frederick Douglass to be preserved as a museum. She also contributed generously to such organizations as the Y.M.C.A. of Indianapolis, the National Association of Colored People and to several organizations that provided help to the needy in Indianapolis and scholarships for young men and women at the Tuskegee Institute. Sarah also encouraged her employees in their own community philanthropic work, giving cash prizes to the groups of agents that did the largest amount of community work.
At the height of her success, Madam Walker was diagnosed with hypertension and doctors suggested she reduce her activity level. Nevertheless, Sarah did not heed their advice and continued her busy schedule. She soon became ill and died on May 25, 1919 as a result of chronic interstitial nephritis, kidney failure, and hypertension. Despite her impoverished beginnings, Madam C.J. Walker became known as the wealthiest African-American woman of her time and, to her credit, she used her prominent position to fight against racial discrimination and her substantial fortune to support civic, educational, and social agencies to aid her fellow African-Americans.