Madame C.J. Walker – A Remarkable Journey
She was born Sarah Breedlove on a plantation just across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg near Delta, Louisiana. The story of her life is nothing short of remarkable. She would leave the fields of the Delta and make her way to great wealth and international fame. Recognized as a cultural icon of her time Madame C.J. Walker became America’s first female African-American millionaire and greatly respected for her generous philanthropy.
She was born December 23, 1867 the sixth child of Owen and Minerva Breedlove. She was their first child to be born outside of slavery. By the age of seven Sarah was orphaned and was sent to Vicksburg to live with her sister, Louvinia and her brother-in-law. At age 14 she married and gave birth to a daughter, A’Lelia. After her husband’s death two years later, she moved to St. Louis where her brothers had established themselves as barbers and she eventually married Charles J. Walker. Walker worked in advertising and would later help market Sarah’s hair care products. It was his idea that she market her hair care products under the name Madame C.J. Walker.
During the 1890’s Sarah developed a scalp disorder that caused her to lose most of her hair. This condition was not uncommon among black women of the time primarily due to the use of harsh products such as lye to cleanse hair and wash clothes. She began to experiment with home remedies and store-bought treatments. Her husband helped her create advertising targeted to African-American women.
Madame C.J. Walker’s hair care products were a huge success and in many ways opened the door for many products designed for use by the African-American community. Walker trained thousands of women to sell her products door-to-door. In addition to training in sales and grooming, Walker showed other black women how to budget, build their own businesses and encouraged them to become financially independent. Between 1911 and 1919, during the height of her career, Walker and her company employed several thousand women as sales agents. By 1917 the company claimed to have trained nearly 20,000 women.
As Walker’s wealth and notoriety increased, 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.” The following year she addressed convention-goers from the podium as the keynote speaker.
Sarah Breedlove “Madame C.J. Walker” died on May 25, 1919, at age 51, at the estate she built for herself in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. At the time of her death, Walker was the sole owner of her business which was valued at more than $1 million. She left one-third of her fortune to her daughter and the remainder to various charities.