Madam C J Walker was an entrepreneur best known for inventing Black haircare products. She was a political social activist, philanthropist and the first female self-made millionaire.
Born Sarah Breedlove on 23 December 1867, Madam C J Walker was the first child in her family to be born into freedom after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Her parents Owen and Minerva and five older siblings had been slaves on a plantation in Louisiana.
Sarah’s mother died when she was only 7 years old and her father died the following year. The cause of both deaths is unknown. Sarah was sent to live with her sister Louvinia and brother-in-law. They moved to Vicksburg Mississippi. Sarah didn’t have the opportunity to go to school and from the age of ten, she began working, picking cotton and doing household work to help support their family.
To escape her harsh working environment and her brother-in-law’s abuse Sarah married a man named Moses McWilliams when she was 14 years old. On 6 June 1885, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, A’Lelia.
Moses died two years later leaving her to raise A’Lelia by herself. Sarah moved to St Louis where her brothers had become barbers. Sarah found work as a washerwoman earning just enough to send her daughter to school. Sarah herself attended public night school when circumstances permitted. St Louis is where Sarah first met Charles Joseph Walker.
Hair loss and hair care
During the 1890s Sarah developed a scalp disorder that caused her to lose a lot of her hair. Her work as a washerwoman possibly contributed to the problem because she was exposed to dirt, hot steam and lye soap.
Hair loss was a very common problem at the time as people could not bathe and wash their hair as often as we do today. Most people didn’t have access to indoor plumbing and electricity so regular shampooing wasn’t possible to combat pollutants. Poor nutrition also made it hard to maintain healthy hair.
To care for her hair, Sarah began experimenting with different store brought hair products and home remedies. Not many products catered for the texture and curls of Black women’s hair. Sarah found that Annie Turnbo’s Poro line of hair care was different.
Annie Turnbo Malone was a Black, hair-care product entrepreneur. Sarah began to use Turnbo’s products like the Great Wonderful Hair Grower. Her hair seemed to benefit from this care and she ended up becoming a Poro sales agent.
In 1905, Sarah moved to Denver, Colorado to sell Poro products and continued to experiment with her own hair care solutions. She also became a cook for pharmacist Edmund L Scholtz where she may have picked up some tips.
Successful growth of Madam C J Walker products
In 1906, Charles Joseph Walker also moved to Denver and Sarah married him not long after. She began to call herself Madam C J Walker. Sarah had now developed her own formula to heal scalps and encourage hair growth.
She stopped working for Turnbo and launched the Madam C J Walker Manufacturing Company where she started selling products such as “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” and “Madam Walker’s Vegetable Shampoo”. Her hair products were completely unique at the time and designed specifically for black women.
In 1907 Walker and Charles travelled, selling door-to-door, promoting her products and giving demonstrations of her “Walker Method” which involved her own formula for pomade, brushing and the use of heated combs.
Her business was very successful and soon she was selling her products across the United States. Walker’s daughter A’Lelia ran a mail-order business from Denver while Madam Walker travelled the states. In 1908 Walker opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh.
In 1910 she settled in Indianapolis and established her headquarters there. By this time, she was so successful her profits were the equivalent of several million dollars in modern-day terms.
Walker expanded her company internationally to Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, Costa Rica and Cuba. Her company was the largest African American owned business in the nation employing thousands of people, including many African American women.
At first, her husband helped her with marketing, advertising and mail orders, but as the business grew, they grew apart and the two divorced in 1913.
Thanks to her inventions Madam Walker was able to create an incredibly successful business against all odds and she used her wealth to fight racism and to support organisations to assist African Americans. She said wanted to be a millionaire for the good she could do with it, not for herself.
As her wealth and celebrity grew, she became more vocal about her views. In 1912, Walker addressed an annual gathering of the National Negro Business League (NNBL) from the convention floor, where she declared: “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.”
In 1916 Walker moved to Harlem where she continued to operate her business but left the day-to-day Indianapolis factory operation to her the forelady. She immersed herself in the social and political culture of the Harlem Renaissance.
Walker’s activism and philanthropy included:
- Spending $10,000 every year for the education of young black men and women
- Joining 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 favour of anti-lynching legislation
- Contributing the largest amount to save the house of Frederick Douglass
- Donating money to the NAACP and to black schools, organisations, individuals, orphanages, and retirement homes
- Encouraging political activism in her employees
- She also donated the largest amount of money by an African American toward the construction of an Indianapolis YMCA in 1913.
Madam Walker died of hypertension at her country home in Irvington-on-Hudson on 25 May 1919, at the age of fifty-one. She was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.
Today, she is remembered as an innovative Black female entrepreneur who inspired many with her business insight, financial independence and philanthropy.
Madam C J Walker left one-third of her estate to her daughter and the remainder to various charities. The miniseries Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C J Walker was released on Netflix in 2020.