Biography of Madam C.J. Walker, American Entrepreneur and Beauty Mogul

Madam C.J. Walker Portrait
Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove) the first female self made millionaire in the world poses for a portrait circa 1914.

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove; December 23, 1867–May 25, 1919) was an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and social activist who revolutionized the hair care and cosmetics industry for African American women in the early 20th century. By leveraging her beauty and hair care products company, Madam Walker was one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire, while offering African American women a source of income and pride. Also known for her philanthropy and social activism, Madam Walker played a significant role in the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1900s.

Fast Facts: Madam C.J. Walker

  • Known For: African American businesswoman and self-made millionaire in the cosmetics industry
  • Also Known As: Born Sarah Breedlove
  • 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
  • Spouses: Moses McWilliams, John Davis, Charles J. Walker
  • Children: Lelia McWilliams (later known as A'Lelia Walker, born 1885)
  • Notable Quote: “I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavor to provide employment to hundreds of women of my race.”

Early Life

Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, to Owen Breedlove and Minerva Anderson 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 had been the site of the Battle of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, during the United States Civil War. While her parents and four older siblings were enslaved on the Burney plantation, Sarah was the first child of her family to be born into freedom after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

Sarah’s mother Minerva died in 1873, possibly of cholera, and her father remarried and then died in 1875. Sarah worked as a domestic servant and her older sister Louvenia survived by working in the cotton fields of Delta and Vicksburg, Mississippi. “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,” Madam Walker recalled. Though she attended Sunday school literacy lessons at her church during her earlier years, she recounted that she had only three months of formal education.

Madame C.J. Walker
Madame C.J. Walker. Courtesy Library of Congress

In 1884 at the age of 14, Sarah married laborer Moses McWilliams, in part to escape her abusive brother-in-law, Jesse Powell, and she gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Lelia (later A'Lelia), on June 6, 1885. After the death of her husband in 1884, she traveled to St. Louis to join her four brothers, who had established themselves as barbers. Working as a laundry woman earning just $1.50 a day, she managed to save enough money to educate her daughter A'Lelia and became involved in activities with the National Association of Colored Women. In 1894, she met and married fellow laundry worker John H. Davis.

Madam Walker Builds Her Cosmetics Empire

During the 1890s, Sarah 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 laundry woman. Embarrassed by her appearance, she experimented with a variety of homemade remedies and products made by another black entrepreneur named Annie Malone. Her marriage to John Davis ended in 1903, and in 1905, Sarah became a sales agent for Malone and moved to Denver, Colorado.

In 1906, Sarah married her third husband, newspaper advertising salesman Charles Joseph Walker. It was at this point that Sarah Breedlove changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker and began advertising herself as an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams. She adopted the title “Madam” as an homage to women pioneers of the French beauty industry of the day.

Walker began selling 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 Lelia College in Pittsburgh to train her "hair culturists."

Photograph of Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company plant in Indianapolis, Indiana, 1911
Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company plant in Indianapolis, Indiana, 1911. Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Getty Images

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 training, employment, and personal growth to thousands of African American women. By 1917 the company claimed to have trained nearly 20,000 women.

Although she did open some traditional storefront beauty shops, most of the Walker Agents ran their shops from their homes or sold products door to door, dressed in their characteristic uniforms of white shirts and black skirts. Walker’s aggressive marketing strategy combined with her relentless ambition led to her becoming the first known female African American woman self-made millionaire, meaning she neither inherited her fortune nor married into it. At the time of her death, Walker’s estate was worth an estimated $600,000 (about $8 million in 2019). After her death in 1919, Madam Walker’s name became even more widely known as the market for her haircare and cosmetics products spread beyond the United States to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica.

Constructed in 1916, for $250,000 (over $6 million today), Madam Walker’s mansion, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington, New York, was designed by Vertner Woodson Tandy, New York state’s first registered black architect. Featuring 34 rooms in 20,000 square feet, with three terraces and a swimming pool, Villa Lewaro was as much Walker’s statement as it was her home.

Photograph of Madam C.J. Walker’s Villa Lewaro mansion in Irvington, New York, taken in 2016
Madam C.J. Walker’s Villa Lewaro mansion in Irvington, New York, 2016. Jim Henderson / Wikimedia Commons / Getty Images

Walker’s vision for Villa Lewaro was for the mansion to serve as a gathering place for community leaders that would prove to other black Americans that they could achieve their dreams. Shortly after moving into the mansion in May 1918, Walker held an event honoring Emmett Jay Scott, then the Assistant Secretary for Negro Affairs of the U.S. Department of War.

In her 2001 biography “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker," A'Lelia Bundles recalls that her great-great-grandmother had built Villa Lewaro as “a Negro institution that only Negro money bought” to “convince members of [my] race of the wealth of business possibilities within the race to point to young Negroes what a lone woman accomplished and to inspire them to do big things.”

Inspiring Black Business Women

Perhaps above and beyond her fame as a self-made millionaire, Madam Walker is remembered as one of the first advocates for the financial independence of black women. After establishing her own thriving cosmetics business, she threw herself into teaching black women how to build, budget, and market their own businesses.

In 1917, Walker borrowed from the structure of the National Association of Colored Women to begin organizing state and local support clubs for her sales agents. These clubs evolved to become the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culturists Union of America. The union’s first annual conference, which convened in Philadelphia during the summer of 1917, hosted 200 attendees and was one of the first national gatherings of American women entrepreneurs.

In delivering the convention’s keynote speech, Madam Walker, after calling America “the greatest country under the sun,” demanded justice for the deaths of some 100 blacks during the recent St. Louis race riots. Moved by her remarks, the delegation sent a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson asking for legislation to avoid "a recurrence of such disgraceful affairs."

"With that gesture, the association had become what perhaps no other currently existing group could claim," wrote A'Lelia Bundles. "American women entrepreneurs organized to use their money and their numbers to assert their political will."

Students Of The Madame CJ
Students of the Madame CJ Walker beauty school during a graduation ceremony, 1939. Afro Newspaper/Gado / Getty Images

Philanthropy and Activism: The Harlem Years

After she and Charles Walker divorced in 1913, Madam Walker 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 their future business operations.

After returning to the United States in 1916, Walker moved into her new Harlem townhouse and quickly immersed herself in the social and political culture of the Harlem Renaissance. 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. In 1913, Walker also donated the largest amount of money by an African American toward the construction of a YMCA serving Indianapolis’ black community. She was also a major contributor to the scholarship funds of the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black university located in Tuskegee, Alabama, founded by early black community leaders Lewis Adams and Booker T. Washington.

As her notoriety increased, Walker became vocal in expressing her social and political views. Speaking from the floor of the 1912 convention of the National Negro Business League, she famously 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."

Madam Walker appeared regularly at conventions sponsored by powerful black institutions, delivering stirring lectures on political, economic, and social issues facing the African American community. As some of her closest friends and associates, Walker often consulted with prominent community organizers and activists Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Madam C.J. Walker Driving
Photograph of Sarah Breedlove driving a car, she was better known as Madam C.J. Walker, the first woman to become a self-made millionaire in the United States, 1911. Smith Collection/Gado / Getty Images

During World War I, Walker, as a leader of the Circle For Negro War Relief organized by Mary Mcleod Bethune, advocated for the establishment of a camp dedicated to the training of black army officers. In 1917, she was appointed to the executive committee of the New York chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded by Mary White Ovington. The same year, she helped organize the NAACP Silent Protest Parade on New York City's Fifth Avenue, which drew some 10,000 people to protest a riot in East St. Louis in which at least 40 African Americans had been killed, several hundred injured, and thousands displaced from their homes.

As the profits from her business grew, so did Walker's contributions to political and philanthropic causes. In 1918, the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs honored her as the largest individual contributor to the preservation of the historic house of slavery abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Frederick Douglass in Anacostia, Washington, D.C. Just months before her death in 1919, Walker donated $5,000 (nearly $73,000 in 2019) to the NAACP's anti-lynching fund—the largest amount ever donated to the NAACP by an individual at the time. In her will, she bequeathed nearly $100,000 to orphanages, institutions, and individuals, and specified that two-thirds of future net profits from her estate be donated to charity.

Death and Legacy

Madam C.J. Walker died at age 51 of kidney failure and complications of hypertension at her Villa Lewaro mansion in Irvington, New York, on May 25, 1919. After her funeral at Villa Lewaro, she was buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City, New York.

Considered the wealthiest African American woman in the country at the time of her death, Walker's obituary in The New York Times stated, “She said herself two years ago that she was not yet a millionaire, but hoped to be some time, not that she wanted the money for herself, but for the good she could do with it. She spent $10,000 every year for the education of young negro men and women in Southern colleges and sent six youths to Tuskegee Institute every year.”

Walker left one-third of her estate to her daughter, A'Lelia Walker, who along with becoming president of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, continued her mother’s role as a vital part of the Harlem Renaissance. The balance of her estate was bequeathed to various charities.

Madame Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Madame Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis, Indiana. Nyttend / GoodFreePhotos / Public Domain

Madam Walker’s business provided access for generations of women to, in her words, “abandon the washtub for a more pleasant and profitable occupation.” In downtown Indianapolis, the Madam Walker Legacy Center—built in 1927 as the Walker Theatre—stands as a tribute to her determination and contributions. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, Walker Theatre Center housed the company's offices and factory as well as a theater, beauty school, hair salon and barbershop, restaurant, drugstore, and a ballroom for the use of the community.

In 2013, Indianapolis-based skincare and haircare company Sundial Brands purchased Madam C.J. Walker Enterprises for the purpose of bringing Walker’s iconic products back to store shelves. On March 4, 2016, more than a century after her “Wonderful Hair Grower” made Madam C.J. Walker a self-made millionaire, Sundial collaborated with Sephora of Paris to begin selling “Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture,” a collection of all-natural gels, oils, cremes, shampoos, and conditioners for different types of hair.

Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture booth during the 2016 Essence Street Style Block Party at DUMBO on September 10, 2016
Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture booth during the 2016 Essence Street Style Block Party on September 10, 2016. Craig Barritt / Stringer / Getty Images

Sources and Further Reference

  • Bundles, A'Lelia. “Madam C.J. Walker, 1867—1919.” Madame C. J. Walker, http://www.madamcjwalker.com/bios/madam-c-j-walker/.
  • Bundles, A'Lelia (2001). “On Her Own Ground.” Scribner; Reprint edition, May 25, 2001.\
  • Glazer, Jessica. “Madam C.J. Walker: America's First Female Self-Made Millionaire.” Catalyst by Convene, https://convene.com/catalyst/madam-c-j-walker-americas-first-female-self-made-millionaire/.
  • Racha Penrice, Ronda. “Madam C.J. Walker's legacy of empowering black women lives on 100 years after her death.” NBC News, March 31, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/madam-c-j-walker-s-legacy-empowering-black-women-lives-n988451.
  • Riquier, Andrea. “Madam Walker Went From Laundress To Millionairess.” Investor’s Business Daily, Feb. 24, 2015, https://www.investors.com/news/management/leaders-and-success/madam-walker-built-hair-care-empire-rose-from-washerwoman/.
  • Anthony, Cara. “A legacy reborn: Madam C.J. Walker hair products are back.” The Indianapolis Star/USA Today, 2016, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/nation-now/2016/10/02/legacy-reborn-madam-cj-walker-hair-products-back/91433826/.

Updated by Robert Longley.