Biography of Madam C.J. Walker

America's First Female, Self-Made Millionaire

Picture of Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove), the first female self made millionaire in the world poses for a portrait. (circa 1914). (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Madame C.J. Walker became the first self-made, female millionaire in America by creating and marketing hair-care products for African-American women. Born to former slaves and orphaned at an early age, Walker worked as a laundress for nearly two decades before finding success as an entrepreneur. An ardent supporter of the advancement of African Americans in business, Walker trained and employed thousands of black women.

She was a generous philanthropist as well, donating money to numerous charities, organizations, and schools.

Dates: December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919

Also Known As: Sarah Breedlove (born as), Sarah McWilliams, Sarah Davis, Sarah Walker

Famous Quote: "I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavor to find employment for hundreds of the women of my race."

A Child of Slaves

The child who would become Madam C. J. Walker was born on a cotton plantation in Delta, Louisiana on December 23, 1867. Christened Sarah Breedlove, the fifth child of Owen and Minerva Breedlove was the first of her family born as a free citizen. Prior to President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Sarah's parents had spent their entire lives as enslaved field workers.

Even after being freed from slavery, Sarah's parents continued to work on the cotton plantation as sharecroppers, having no other options to support themselves.

They made very little profit for a great deal of hard work. The family of seven remained in their one-room cabin, where they slept on a dirt floor.  A sixth child, Solomon, was born in 1869.

All of the children worked on the plantation from an early age, beginning with relatively easy tasks and eventually progressing to the grueling work of picking cotton.

Owen and Minerva Breedlove—neither of whom had ever learned to read or write—wished for a better life for their children. Yet despite the reforms of Reconstruction, few schools existed for blacks in most parts of the South. Even if schools had been available, the children were far too busy helping their parents to have attended.

Earning enough money to support the large family became ever more challenging. For added income, Minerva took in laundry. She taught her two daughters how to wash clothes, an exhausting chore that entailed the use of huge tubs of boiling water and harsh lye soap.

Tragedy for the Breedlove Children

In 1874, when Sarah was only seven years old, her mother died, possibly from cholera during an epidemic that swept through the region that year. Owen Breedlove remarried a few months later, but he also died shortly thereafter, of causes unknown.

Sarah and her siblings stayed on the farm and did the best they could to make enough money for food and rent; however, it was an uphill battle. When a yellow fever epidemic hit their town in 1878—killing thousands—11-year-old Sarah and her siblings fled Delta, moving across the river to Vicksburg, Mississippi.

In Vicksburg, Sarah and her older sister, Louvenia, did the job they knew best—the onerous task of laundering clothes.

Their brothers worked as laborers.

Sarah's four brothers all eventually moved to St. Louis, Missouri and prospered as barbers. Louvenia married and Sarah moved in with her sister and brother-in-law. But Louvenia's husband saw Sarah as a burden and treated her cruelly. Anxious to escape her unhappy situation, Sarah ran away and married at the age of 14, not an uncommon occurrence in the late 19th century.

A Widow at Twenty

Sarah's husband, Moses McWilliams, worked at various jobs, while Sarah continued to work as a washerwoman. They had a daughter, Lelia, in June 1885, when Sarah was 17 years old.

Just as Sarah thought that she was settling in to a happy life as a wife and mother, she was again stricken by sudden loss. When Lelia was only two years old, Moses died suddenly (of unknown causes), leaving Sarah a widow at the age of 20.

Unwilling to face the prospect of moving back in with her sister and brother-in-law, Sarah made plans to move to St. Louis to join her brothers.

With few belongings, Sarah McWilliams and her daughter boarded a riverboat heading north on the Mississippi to St. Louis in 1888.

Life in St. Louis

In the bustling city of St. Louis, Sarah had no problem finding work as a laundress, earning on average $1.50 a week. She and her daughter lived with one of her brothers until they could afford their own apartment. But because Sarah had to work long hours to keep up with her bills, she was compelled to send her daughter to St. Louis Colored Orphans' Home for part of the week.

Fortunately, the orphanage was a nurturing environment, and with the help of the home's matron, Lelia was registered for elementary school. Lelia would receive the education that had been denied her mother.

In 1894, Sarah married John Davis. The marriage was not a happy one. Davis worked only sporadically, placing Sarah in the role of main breadwinner. He was also an alcoholic with a violent temper. (Sarah eventually left Davis in 1905.)

Even as she worked 14-hour days, Sarah knew that she needed more in her life. Joining her local African-American church helped meet that need. While attending services at the church, Sarah was exposed to African Americans of every economic background, including doctors, teachers, and lawyers. Seeing the success of others, Sarah came to the realization that she was capable of more. She gratefully took advantage of the help offered by the women in her church, who taught her the basics of reading and writing.

The Seeds of Success

When the World's Fair came to St. Louis in 1904, Sarah found herself greatly affected by the prominent blacks who participated. Speakers included scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois and educator Booker T. Washington. Sarah was impressed not only by these inspiring men, but also by the meticulous grooming and fine clothing of many black attendees, both male and female.

Sarah felt less than confident about her own appearance. As a laundress, she always made sure her own modest clothes were neat and well-starched, but she was self-conscious about her hair. Plagued by a scalp condition, brittle hair, and bald patches, Sarah sought a solution. (Many African-American women had the same problems with their hair, due in part to poor nutrition and the harsh soaps that were used at the time.)

Sarah used several hair-care products that were marketed for black women, with varying degrees of success. She even took on a second job selling some of these products door-to-door for a St. Louis-based company.

Over time, Sarah determined that she could come up with her own hair treatment and begin a business herself. Inspired by a dream she'd had in which a man told her what ingredients to use, Sarah began developing a new hair care product for black women.

A New Life in Denver

Perhaps in part because she wanted a new market in which to sell her products, 37-year-old Sarah Breedlove decided to move to Denver, Colorado, where her brother's widow and four children lived. (Sarah's own daughter Lelia attended college in Tennessee.)

Arriving in Denver in July 1905, Sarah found a job as a cook for a drugstore owner, a man who helped her with the formula for her hair preparation. When not working, she spent every free moment on perfecting her product. Eventually, she quit her job and went back to doing laundry part-time. This gave her the flexibility she needed to go out and market her product door-to-door.

Sarah first tried out the products on her own hair, then during a sales pitch, would present the potential customer with a "before" photo for comparison. She marketed her products by giving free treatments to customers, who were so impressed by the results, they eagerly placed orders. Her first product was called "Wonderful Hair Grower;" she later added "Vegetable Shampoo" and "Glossine."

Although Denver had a relatively small African-American population, Sarah advertised in black publications, generating a large number of mail orders. She gained more popularity by traveling to nearby towns to pitch her products.

Marriage to C.J. Walker

In the fall of 1905, Sarah wrote to Charles J. Walker, a man she had been seeing back in St. Louis prior to leaving for Denver. She told him of her success in Denver and invited him to visit her there. Walker, a sales agent for an African-American newspaper, arrived in late 1905.

Walker decided to stay in Denver and the two were married in January 1906. Sarah was 38. When the couple filed for a marriage license, officials learned that there was no record of Sarah's divorce from Davis. Further investigation, however, revealed that there was also no evidence that they'd been legally married.

C.J. Walker, with his background in sales, provided his wife with advice on marketing her hair-care products. The couple expanded their mail-order business and renamed the company "Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company," believing the exotic-sounding name would draw more customers. A photo of Madam Walker, her hair glossy and smooth, was used on the packages. (In contrast, ads for most of the other hair products of the day targeted for black women featured light-skinned African-American models.)

Madam Walker, as she was now known, felt certain she could promote her product to a larger audience by taking a cross-country sales trip. Her husband didn't share her optimism, but reluctantly agreed to go with her. They left in September 1906. A year and a half later, after they had visited nine states, the boost in sales was tremendous. Weekly sales were up to $35, the equivalent of four times the weekly pay of a white, male, factory worker of that time.

Walker's daughter Lelia had by then left college and moved to Denver to help her mother and stepfather run the business.

A Growing Business

As her products became increasingly popular, Walker realized that even with her daughter's help, she could not keep up with the demand, nor the stress of constant travel to sell her products. By 1908, she had hired dozens of assistants to become her sales agents.

That same year, Walker moved her company's central operations to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. With Pittsburgh's rapidly growing African-American population, Walker would be assured of a wealth of new customers, as well as representatives to sell her products.

In the summer of 1908, Walker and her daughter opened "Lelia College of Beauty Culture," a training school for Walker sales agents, who would be known as "hair culturists." Hundreds of black women applied to the Pittsburgh school, hopeful that learning a new trade would improve their lives. For many of these women—a majority of whom were housekeepers and laundresses—this was a chance to leave behind a life of domestic service and make a good living.

Move to Indianapolis

Madam Walker's business became so successful, it eventually outgrew the Pittsburgh facility. Seeking a more central location that would better suit her mail-order distribution, Walker resettled in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1910. Known as "The Crossroads of America," the city offered an ideal transportation network.

Walker hired legal advisors and a financial manager, and filed for incorporation of her company. She also hired a supervisor for the factory, who later became a tutor of sorts for Walker. Because she lacked formal education, Walker needed help with letter-writing, speeches, and rules of etiquette. She always sought to improve herself, and would look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary while reading the paper every morning.

The move to Indianapolis paid off. Within a year, Madam Walker's company employed more than 900 agents in the U.S. and monthly profits totaled $1000 (today's equivalent of $22,000). She used her profits to expand her company and to hire more employees.

Madame Walker also became interested in cultural activities. She hosted concerts and other events in her lavishly-decorated home, and began purchasing paintings and other works of art.

Despite her wealth, Walker, like most African Americans of the era, was the victim of discrimination. While bankers and salesmen welcomed her with open arms, others did not. When Walker was charged extra at a local movie theater just because she was black, she protested and filed a complaint. In the end, she exacted her revenge. A few years later, she built the Walker Building in downtown Indianapolis, which included an expanded factory, a pharmacy, a beauty salon -- and its own theater. (Today, the building is on the National Historic Registry.)

Divorce From C.J. Walker

Although Madam Walker's business was wildly successful, she and her husband could not agree upon how to run it. Charles Walker was also rumored to have had many affairs. Unable to settle their differences, they divorced in 1912 after six years of marriage. Even after the divorce, Sarah Walker, whose name was such an important a part of her brand, kept her former husband's name for the rest of her life.

Walker's daughter, who was now married and called herself A'Lelia, went to New York City to open a salon and beauty school. During her visits back to the Indianapolis headquarters, A'Lelia became charmed by a local girl who served as a model for Madam Walker's products. A'lelia eventually adopted 13-year-old Mae Bryant, whose widowed mother struggled to raise her eight children. Mae would be A'Lelia's only child and Walker's only grandchild.

Mae accompanied Walker on many of her business trips and began to learn about the business from her adoptive grandmother.

Activist and Philanthropist

Determined to promote the interests of her race, Walker became involved with African-American organizations. She attended the National Negro Business League convention (one of the few women entrepreneurs to do so) and the conference of the National Association of Colored Women. Traveling across the country, Walker gave inspiring speeches to church members, expounding the merits of hard work and determination to improve one's lot in life.

Walker did more than merely give speeches. A generous philanthropist, she gave money to causes she considered worthy, including the YMCA, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and various black churches and educational institutions. At a time of strained racial relations during the early 20th century, Walker also contributed to an anti-lynching campaign.

Even as she showed great generosity with her wealth, Walker did not hesitate to spend money on herself. She lived in a beautiful home, dressed in the most fashionable clothes, and always drove the latest, top-of-the-line automobile.

International Expansion

Given that women of African descent lived in many parts of the world, Madam Walker's next goal was to expand her business to include countries in Central America and the Caribbean. She sailed to the West Indies in November 1913, and from there went to Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, Costa Rica, and the Panama Canal Zone. After demonstrating her products to these women, Walker found many enthusiastic new customers.

Returning to the U.S. in January 1914, Walker toured New England and the northeastern United States. She found herself spending a great deal of time in New York City, where her daughter and granddaughter lived. Walker enjoyed the lively city and wanted to be nearer to her family. Over the objections of her staff in Indianapolis, Walker, now 48 years old, made the decision to move to Harlem in 1916. (The company's base of operations, however, remained in Indianapolis.)

Harlem at that time was evolving into the epicenter of African-American culture and was the home of many talented black artists, musicians, and writers. Walker's Harlem townhouse became a popular meeting place for many of Harlem's elite.

A Trip to Her Birthplace

As her company continued to prosper, Walker kept up her exhausting pace, traveling to promote her products. By fall of 1916, however, she had become weary and decided to delegate the promotional trips to other employees. She did take one final trip to the southeast in September 1916, and made a side trip to her childhood home in Delta, Louisiana. Walker could scarcely believe how far she had come from that dingy, one-room cabin.

While on the trip, Walker and her entourage were quite shaken up by a near-tragedy. As the car in which they were riding crossed railroad tracks, a train came barreling down the tracks without any warning, headed straight for the car. The driver managed to move off the tracks just in time.

Walker was deeply affected by the incident and saw a physician the next day. He cautioned her that her blood pressure was very high, and that she must take some time off. She heeded his advice and took a relaxing six-week respite at a spa in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Later breaking her promise to her doctor, Walker took a two-month trip to Louisiana and Texas, returning to New York in April 1917.

WWI and the Race Riots of 1917

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, many black organizations, including the NAACP, supported the idea that black men should join the war effort. In doing so, they would prove their loyalty and their worth, and demonstrate that they deserved equal rights. Madam Walker agreed with that notion and went on a speaking tour of training camps, giving encouragement to young black soldiers.

Unfortunately, many whites did not agree that blacks should be given equal rights, regardless of whether or not they had served their country. Violent race riots broke out in several American cities in the summer of 1917. One of the worst riots took place in East St. Louis, Illinois, where mobs killed 39 blacks and injured many more. In protest, enraged black citizens came together to demand an end to such incidents.

Madam Walker and other community leaders organized the Negro Silent Protest Parade, held in July 1917 in New York City. Tens of thousands of spectators watched as marchers somberly made their way down Fifth Avenue to the accompaniment of muted drum beats.

Walker and her cohorts also tried unsuccessfully to get a bill passed making lynching a federal crime. (It was already a state crime, but lynchers often went unpunished in the southern states.)

Serious Illness

In 1918, Walker moved into her newly-built, 30-room mansion, located on the Hudson River outside of New York City. The opulent home, which she christened "Villa Lewaro," became the scene of many lively gatherings.

Despite the warnings of her doctor, Walker resumed her hectic pace. Family and friends could see that she was exhausted and begged her to slow down. Walker relented; she reduced her work load and spent more time at home, planted a garden, and relaxed in her yard.

But Madam Walker could not stay out of the limelight for long. She continued to speak at conventions and maintained a busy social life. She also took up the cause of black soldiers returning from war, speaking out with her concerns that they would face the same discrimination they had encountered before the war.

In April 1919, on a visit to St. Louis, Walker became ill, her blood pressure dangerously high. Alarmed, her friends hired a private railroad car to get her back to New York as soon as possible. Back home, Walker was informed by her doctor that her high blood pressure had damaged her kidneys. The damage was irreversible and recovery unlikely.

Walker called in her lawyer to update her will. Even in her last days she was generous, specifying in her will that two-thirds of her future earnings go to charity.

Within days, Walker fell into a coma. Sarah Breedlove Walker, who had lived such an improbably successful life, died on May 25, 1919 at the age of 51. Her daughter A'Lelia took over the hair care company after her mother's death. It remained in business until 1986.

The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Madam Walker in 1998.