Biography of Madam C.J. Walker, Innovator and Beauty Mogul

Madam C.J. Walker

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Madam C.J. Walker (December 23, 1867–May 25, 1919) was the business and chosen name of Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Davis Walker, who, along with friend and business associate Marjorie Joyner, revolutionized the hair care and cosmetics industry for African-American women early in the 20th century. Madam Walker was a self-made millionaire who leveraged her beauty product company to give African-American women a source of income and pride.

Fast Facts: Madam C.J. Walker

  • Known For: Businesswoman and self-made millionaire in the cosmetics industry for African American women
  • Born: December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana
  • Parents: Minerva Anderson and Owen Breedlove
  • Died: May 25, 1919 in Irvington, New York.
  • Education: Three months of formal grade school education
  • Spouse(s): Moses McWilliams (1884–1888), John Davis (1894–1903), Charles J. Walker (1906–1912)
  • Children: Lelia McWilliams (known later as A'Lelia Walker, born 1885)

Early Life

Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, in a one-room cabin on the former plantation owned by Robert W. Burney in rural Louisiana near the town of Delta. The Burney plantation was also the site of the 1862–1863 Battle of Vicksburg. Sarah was the youngest of five children of Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove, and the only one of those children born after the Emancipation Proclamation and therefore born free. Her mother Minerva died in 1873, possibly of cholera, and her father remarried and then died himself in 1875. Sarah and her older sister Louvenia survived by working in the cotton fields of Delta and Vicksburg in Mississippi; her sister eventually married Jesse Powell, who Madam Walker later said abused her.

Marriage and Family

In 1884 at the age of 14, Sarah married laborer Moses McWilliams, in part to escape Jesse Powell, and she gave birth to her only child, daughter Leila, on June 6, 1885. After her husband's death (or disappearance) in 1884, she traveled to St. Louis to join her four brothers who had established themselves as barbers. Working as a laundrywoman, she managed to save enough money to educate her daughter and became involved in activities with the National Association of Colored Women. In 1894, she met and married fellow laundry worker John H. Davis.

During the 1890s, Walker began to suffer from a scalp ailment that caused her to lose some of her hair, a condition likely caused by the harshness of the available products and her profession as a laundrywoman. Embarrassed by her appearance, she experimented with a variety of home-made remedies and products made by another black entrepreneur named Annie Malone. Her marriage to Davis ended in 1903, and in 1905, Walker became a sales agent for Malone and moved to Denver.

Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower

In 1906, Sarah married newspaper advertising salesman Charles Joseph Walker. Sarah Breedlove changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker and founded her own business. She sold her own hair product called Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula. To promote her products, she embarked on an exhausting sales drive throughout the South and Southeast, going door to door, giving demonstrations and working on sales and marketing strategies. In 1908, she opened a college in Pittsburgh to train her "hair culturists."

Eventually, her products formed the basis of a thriving national corporation that at one point employed over 3,000 people. Her expanded product line was called the Walker System, which offered a broad variety of cosmetics and pioneered new ways of marketing. She licensed Walker Agents and Walker Schools that offered meaningful employment and personal growth to thousands of African-American women. Although she did have some store-front beauty shops, most Walker Agents ran their shops from their homes or sold products door-to-door. Walker’s aggressive marketing strategy combined with her relentless ambition led to her becoming the first known female African-American woman self-made millionaire.

Death and Legacy

Having amassed a fortune over a period of 15 years, she became an important member of New York's Harlem society. She built a fabulous mansion on the Hudson River in Irvington, New York, completed in June 1918 and called Villa Lewaro (a reference to Leila Walker Robinson suggested by friend Enrico Caruso). The 34-room, 20,000 square foot Italianate-style residence was a gathering place for friends and colleagues in the Harlem Renaissance, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. 

Walker also became involved in charities, contributing scholarship funds to Tuskegee Institute, raised funds to help establish a YMCA for black youth, and delivered lectures on political, economic, and social issues for various black institutions. She was, however, growing ill.

Diagnosed with nephritis in November 1917, Madam C.J. Walker took ill while on a business trip to St. Louis and was quickly taken home in a private railroad car. She died on May 25, 1919, in Irvington at the age of 52. Her prescription for success was a combination of perseverance, hard work, faith in herself and in God, honest business dealings, and quality products. "There is no royal flower-strewn path to success," she once observed. "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."

Improved Permanent Wave Machine

Long after Madam Walker's death, her empire persisted, producing and selling beauty care products until the 1980s. Marjorie Joyner, an employee of her empire, invented an improved permanent wave machine. This device was patented in 1928 and was designed to curl or perm women’s hair for a relatively lengthy period of time. The wave machine turned out to be popular among white and black women and allowed for longer-lasting wavy hairstyles. Joyner went on to become a prominent figure in Madam CJ Walker’s industry, though she never profited directly from her invention. The invention was the assigned intellectual property of the Walker Company.