“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.” Madam Walker, National Negro Business League Convention, July 1912
Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, the first child in her family born into freedom after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Her parents and five older siblings were slaves on a plantation in Louisiana. By the time of her death in 1919, Madam Walker was the wealthiest black woman in America and the first self-made female American millionaire.
Sarah’s parents died when she was only 7 years old, and she moved in with her sister and brother-in-law and soon began working to help support their family. She married when she was 14 to escape her brother-in-law’s abuse. Her husband died when Sarah was 20, leaving her to raise their 2-year-old daughter A’Lelia by herself.
Sarah began experiencing hair loss at a young age. Hair loss was a very common problem at the time: people found it difficult to bathe and wash their hair as often as we do today because most lacked access to things like indoor plumbing, central heating, and electricity. Sarah began experimenting with different products and home remedies, eventually creating her own shampoos and hair treatments.
She named her company after her husband at the time, Charles Joseph Walker, and began selling products such as “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” and “Madam Walker’s Vegetable Shampoo”. Designed specifically for black women, her hair products were completely unique at the time. She began selling her products door-to-door, and teaching the women she met all about hair and scalp treatments.
Her business was so successful that she was soon selling her products across the United States. Sarah’s daughter A’Lelia ran a mail-order business from Denver while Madam Walker travelled the states, finally settling in Indianapolis where she opened her own factory. After establishing her headquarters there, she expanded her company internationally to Jamaica, Cuba, Costa Rica, Panama and Haiti. Her company employed thousands of people, including many African-American women, and was the largest African-American owned business in the nation.
Not only was Madam Walker create incredibly successful business against all odds, she also used her wealth to oppose racism and support institutions to assist African-Americans. She said that she wanted to be a millionaire not for herself, but for the good she could do with it. Besides lecturing on these issues at various conventions, Sarah also:
- Made the largest contribution to save the house of Frederick Douglass
- Donated money to the NAACP, the YMCA, and to black schools, organizations, individuals, orphanages, and retirement homes
- Spent $10,000 every year for the education of young black men and women
- Encouraged political activism in her employees
- Joined the leaders of NAACP in their efforts to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime, even going herself to the White House to petition in favor of anti-lynching legislation
Today there are two National Historic Landmarks associated with Madam Walker: her New York estate called Villa Lewaro, and the Madam Walker Theatre Center, built in Indianapolis in 1928, which is now a cultural arts center. She also appears on a commemorative United States Postal Service stamp as part of its Black Heritage Series.
Much of what we know today about Madam Walker is due to the efforts of her great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, author, journalist & public speaker who runs the official Madam C. J. Walker website and is her official biographer. Images in this post are used with her permission.
KeriLynn Engel is an autodidact and women’s history buff who founded Amazing Women in History in 2011.