Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in Delta Louisiana to former slaves, Owen and Minerva Breedlove. Her parents died during a yellow fever epidemic when she was 7 years old. When she was ten years old, her older sister and her moved to Vicksburg to obtain work. At 14, she married Moses McWilliams to escape her sister’s abusive husband. She gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Lelia, and two years later her husband died.
She moved in with her brothers in St. Louis, Missouri and worked doing laundry for a dollar a day. While living in St. Louis, she joined St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church; this helped develop her speaking, interpersonal and organizational skills. She remarried in 1894 to John Davis, this marriage lasting until about 1903.
In the early 1900s, Sarah claims to have had a dream that inspired her to start her own business. She would tell reporters, her dream was of a large black man that appeared to her and gave her a formula for curing baldness. The early 1900s lacked indoor plumbing and consequently, many people only washed their hair once or twice a month. This caused dandruff and other scalp afflictions that soon caused problems such as baldness.
Sarah, being inspired by this dream set out to become what the Guinness Book of World Records would later call, the first woman to ever become a millionaire.
In 1905, Sarah moved to Denver, Colorado, to work as a sales agent for Annie Malone, another black woman entrepreneur who manufactured hair care products. Sarah, mindful of her dreams, took a sample of Malone’s formula to a Denver pharmacist who helped her formulate her own “Wonderful Hair Grower” products.
Soon afterward she met and married Charles Joseph Walker, a St. Louis newspaperman. In 1906 she changed her name to “Madame C. J. Walker”, and started the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company to sell hair care products for Black women. Critics claimed she was trying to match the black woman’s hair to the white styles, to which she retorted, “My products are simply to help black women take proper care of their hair and promote growth.”
Madame Walker and her husband began touring the country to promote her new products, while daughter, Lelia, maintained the mail-order business in Denver. In 1908 to they opened a beauty training school, the ‘Lelia College for Walker Hair Culturists’, in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. In 1910, they moved their operation to Indianapolis, the country’s largest manufacturing base at the time, so they could have access to the eight major railway systems located there, for shipping their products all over the USA.
Later in 1910, her husband and her divorced, and Madame Walker turned over operations to some trusted key principles, while still maintaining ownership. By 1917, Madame C. J. Walker’s hair care and cosmetic company became the largest business in the United States owned by a black person.
A notable quote by Madame Walker: “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.”
And probably the most inspirational “There is no royal, flower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life, it is because I have been willing to work hard.”
She became active as a philanthropist and in the NAACP, helping to make lynching a crime after the St Louis riots of 1917.
Her company thrived providing jobs to many black women as sales people. Her inspiration and generosity was resounded through organizations like the YMCA, YWCA, orphanages, churches, and the NAACP.
On Sunday, May 25, 1919, Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro, her mansion in New York, from kidney failure, and the result of hypertension. Her daughter Lelia succeeded her as president of the C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.