Madam C.J. Walker

Entrepreneur & Philanthropist

“I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”

Madam C.J. Walker , born Sarah Breedlove, created specialized hair products for African-American hair and was one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire.

Early Life

Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana. Her parents, Owen and Minerva, were recently freed slaves, and Sarah, who was their fifth child, was the first in her family to be free-born. Minerva Breedlove died in 1874 and Owen passed away the following year, both due to unknown causes, and Sarah became an orphan at the age of 7.

Madam C.J. Walker

After her parents' passing, Sarah was sent to live with her sister, Louvinia, and her brother-in-law. The three moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1877, where Sarah picked cotton and was likely employed doing household work, although no documentation exists verifying her employment at the time.

At age 14, to escape both her oppressive working environment and the frequent mistreatment she endured at the hands of her brother-in-law, Sarah married a man named Moses McWilliams. On June 6, 1885, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, A'Leila. When Moses died two years later, Sarah and A'Lelia moved to St. Louis, where Sarah's brothers had established themselves as barbers.

There, Sarah found work as a washerwoman, earning $1.50 a day–enough to send her daughter to the city's public schools. She also attended public night school whenever she could. While in St. Louis, Breedlove met her second husband Charles J. Walker, who worked in advertising and would later help promote her hair care business.


Early Entrepreneurship

During the 1890s, Sarah Breedlove developed a scalp disorder that caused her to lose much of her hair, and she began to experiment with both home remedies and store-bought hair care treatments in an attempt to improve her condition. In 1905, Breedlove was hired as a commission agent by Annie Turnbo Malone–a successful, black, hair care product entrepreneur–and she moved to Denver, Colorado.

While there, Breedlove's husband Charles helped her create advertisements for a hair care treatment for African Americans that she was perfecting. Her husband also encouraged her to use the more recognizable name “Madam C.J. Walker,” by which she was thereafter known.

In 1907, Walker and her husband traveled around the South and Southeast promoting her products and giving lecture demonstrations of her “Walker Method”–involving her own formula for pomade, brushing and the use of heated combs.


Success and Philanthropy

As profits continued to grow, in 1908 Walker opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh, and by 1910, when Walker transferred her business operations to Indianapolis, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company had become wildly successful, with profits that were the modern-day equivalent of several million dollars.

In Indianapolis, the company not only manufactured cosmetics, but trained sales beauticians. These “Walker Agents” became well known throughout the black communities of the United States. In turn, they promoted Walker's philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness” as a means of advancing the status of African-Americans. An innovator, Walker organized clubs and conventions for her representatives, which recognized not only successful sales, but also philanthropic and educational efforts among African-Americans.

In 1913, Walker and Charles divorced, and she traveled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean promoting her business and recruiting others to teach her hair care methods. While her mother traveled, A'Lelia Walker helped facilitate the purchase of property in Harlem, New York, recognizing that the area would be an important base for future business operations.

In 1916, upon returning from her travels, Walker moved to her new townhouse in Harlem. From there, she would continue to operate her business, while leaving the day-to-day operations of her factory in Indianapolis to its forelady.

Madam C.J. Walker

Walker quickly immersed herself in Harlem's social and political culture. She founded philanthropies that included educational scholarships and donations to homes for the elderly, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Conference on Lynching, among other organizations focused on improving the lives of African-Americans. She also donated the largest amount of money by an African-American toward the construction of an Indianapolis YMCA in 1913.


Death and Legacy

Madam C.J. Walker died of hypertension on May 25, 1919, at age 51, at the estate home she had built for herself in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. At the time of her death, Walker was sole owner of her business, which was valued at more than $1 million. Her personal fortune was estimated at between $600,000 and $700,000. Today, Walker is widely credited as the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire.

Walker left one-third of her estate to her daughter, A'Lelia Walker–who would also become well-known as an important part of the cultural Harlem Renaissance–and the remainder to various charities. Walker's funeral took place at her home, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington-on-Hudson, which was designated a National Historic Landmark, and she was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.

In 1927, the Walker Building, an arts center that Walker had begun work on before her death, was opened in Indianapolis. An important African-American cultural center for decades, it is now a registered National Historic Landmark. In 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp of Madam C.J. Walker as part of its –Black Heritage– series.


Quick Facts

Birth Date:
December 23, 1867

Death Date:
May 25, 1919


  • Walker’s source of wealth was from her sales of hair and beauty products. She developed and marketed them. She established Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company to produce the products and sold them for the African-American women.
  • Walker was not only a businesswoman. People also recognized her due to the activism and philanthropy.
  • She also appeared as the patron of arts. She also donated a large amount of money to various organizations.
  • The African-American community had a social gathering located at the luxurious estate of Walker located in Irvington-on-Hudson in New York. The estate was called Villa Lewaro.
  • Walker was a self-made millionaire. She was poor. She tried to give her daughter formal education by trying to get enough money.
  • She observed that the women in African-American community experienced a number of hair problems such as baldness, scalp ailments and severe dandruff. The harsh products were often used by these women to wash their hair. Thus, they had skin disorder on the scalp.
  • Before she developed her product line, she worked for Annie Turnbo Malone who owned the Poro Company, which sold African-American hair care. Later Walker’s company became her rival.
  • During the early business, Walker sold her product door-to-door. She would give advice for her clients related to style and groom the hair.
  • Madam C.J. Walker
  • Madam C.J. Walker
  • Madam C.J. Walker

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