✪ Madam CJ Walker, born Sarah Breedlove was an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political activist who created an empire of hair care products, cosmetics, training schools and salons to become the first female black millionaire in American history. Walker made her fortune by developing and marketing a line of cosmetics and hair care products exclusively for black women through the business she founded, the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She also became widely known for her philanthropy. At the time of her death, she was a household name in the black community and the wealthiest, self-made, black businesswoman in America.
Sarah Breedlove was born on December 23, 1867 near Delta, Louisiana. Her parents were Owen and Minerva (Anderson) Breedlove. Although Sarah had five older siblings, she was the first child in her family to be born into freedom after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Her mother died in 1872 from cholera (an epidemic which traveled up the Mississippi with river boat passengers, reaching Tennessee and related areas in 1873). Her father remarried but died a year later.
An orphan at the age of seven , Sarah moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where she lived with her older sister Louvenia and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell. At age ten, she started work as a child domestic servant. “I had little or no opportunity when I started out in life, having been left an orphan and being without mother or father since I was seven years of age,” she often recounted. She also recounted having only three months of formal education, which she learned during Sunday school literacy lessons at the church she attended during her younger years.
In 1888, Sarah and her daughter moved to St. Louis, where three of her brothers lived. Sarah found work in a commercial laundry earning barely more than a dollar a day. She was determined to make enough money to provide her daughter with a formal education.
Sarah suffered from severe dandruff and other scalp ailments, including alopecia (balding) due to skin disorders and the application of harsh products to cleanse her hair and wash clothes. Other contributing factors to her hair loss included poor diet, illnesses, and infrequent bathing and hair washing during a time in history when most Americans lacked indoor plumbing, central heating or electricity.
Sarah initially learned about hair care from her brothers who were barbers in St. Louis. Around the time of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair), she became a commission agent selling products for Annie Malone, an African-American hair-care entrepreneur, millionaire, and owner of the Poro Company. Sales at the exposition were a disappointment because at that time, the African-American hair product market was largely ignored.
While working for Malone, who would later become Walker’s largest rival in the hair-care industry, Sarah began to take her new knowledge and develop her own product line. Following her marriage to Charles Walker in 1906, Sarah became publicly known as Madam C J Walker. She marketed herself as an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams. (The title “Madam” was adopted from the women pioneers of the French beauty industry.). As her business partner, her husband also provided valuable advice on advertising and promotion. Originally, Sarah sold her products door to door, while educating other black women on how to groom and style their hair.
In 1906, Walker put her daughter in charge of the mail-order operation in Denver while she and her husband traveled throughout the southern and eastern United States expanding the business. In 1908, Walker and her husband relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they opened a beauty parlor and established the Lelia College to formally train “hair culturists.” As an advocate of black women’s economic independence, she also created and opened training programs in the “Walker System” for her national network of licensed sales agents who earned healthy commissions.
Walker’s method of grooming was designed to stimulate hair growth and to condition the scalp through the use of her products. The Walker System included a shampoo and a pomade stated to help hair grow, strenuous brushing, and applying iron combs to hair; a method which claimed to make lackluster and brittle hair become soft and luxuriant.
Between 1911 and 1919, Walker and her company employed several thousand women as sales agents for its products. By 1917, the company claimed to have trained nearly 20,000 women. Historians have written the Walker agents focused on door-to-door sales as they visited houses throughout the United States and the Caribbean offering Walker’s hair pomade and other products packaged in tin containers carrying her image; however, the more likely scenario is that the Walker beauty culturists demonstrated their products in their own homes and beauty salons because they needed a source of water in order to show how their products worked. Walker certainly understood the power of advertising, marketing and brand awareness. Heavy advertising primarily in African-American newspapers and magazines, in addition to her frequent travels to promote her products, made Walker and her products widely known across the United States. Her business continued growing even after her death, expanding beyond the United States into Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica.
In addition to training in sales and grooming, Walker educated other black women on how to budget & build their own businesses to encourage them to become financially independent. In 1917, Walker began organizing her sales agents into state and local chapters. The result was the establishment of the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam CJ Walker Agents.
Its first annual conference convened in Philadelphia during the summer of 1917 with 200 attendees. The conference is also believed to have been among the first national gatherings of women entrepreneurs to discuss business and commerce. During the convention, Walker awarded prizes to women who sold the most products and brought in the most new sales agents. She also rewarded those who made the largest contributions to charities in their communities.
Walker became more active in political matters after moving to New York in 1917. She became a sought after keynote speaker delivering lectures on political, economic, and social issues at conventions sponsored by powerful black institutions. Her friends and personal associates included Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and W. E. B. Du Bois.
Walker was a devout Christian and her faith had a big influence on her philanthropy. Profits from her business significantly impacted Walker’s contributions to her political and philanthropic interests. In 1918, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) honored Walker for making the largest individual contribution to help preserve Frederick Douglass’s Anacostia house.
Walker died on May 25, 1919 at the age of 51, from kidney failure due to medical complications of hypertension. She is interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City. In her will, Walker bequeathed nearly $100,000 ($1,850,000 equivalent in 2020) to orphanages, institutions and individuals. Her will also directed two-thirds of all future net profits of her estate to go to charity.
In 1993, Walker was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service honored her legacy with a Madam Walker commemorative stamp as part of its Black Heritage Series.
At the time of her death, Walker was the wealthiest African-American woman in America. According to her obituary in The New York Times, “she once said of herself that she was not yet a millionaire, but hoped to be one day; not that she wanted the money for herself, but for all the good she could do with it.” ✪