Madam C.J. Walker (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919), born Sarah Breedlove, was an African-American businesswoman, hair care entrepreneur and philanthropist. She made her fortune by developing and marketing a hugely successful line of beauty and hair products for black women under the company she founded, Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.
Born in Delta, Louisiana Madam Walker was one of six children. Her parents and elder siblings were slaves on a Madison Parish plantation owned by Robert W. Burney. After her parents passed away, Madam C. J. Walker moved in with her older sister, and brother-in-law, Willie Powell. She later said she married Moses McWilliams when she was 14 years old to get a home of her own to escape Powell’s abuse.
Three years later her daughter, Lelia McWilliams (A’Lelia Walker) was born. When Sarah was 20, her husband died. Shortly afterward she moved to St. Louis where three of her brothers were barbers. She joined St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she sang in the choir and where she was greatly influenced by women members like Jessie Batts Robinson, a school teacher and wife of newspaper publisher, Christopher Robinson.
On August 11, 1894 Sarah married a man named John Davis. That marriage ended around 1903. In January 1906 she married a newspaper sales agent, Charles Joseph Walker. They divorced in 1912.
Like many women of her era, Sarah experienced hair loss. Because most Americans lacked indoor plumbing, central heating and electricity, they bathed and washed their hair infrequently. The result was scalp disease. Sarah experimented with home remedies and products already on the market until she finally developed her own shampoo and an ointment that contained sulfur to make her scalp healthier for hair growth.
Soon Sarah, now known as Madam C. J. Walker, was selling her products throughout the United States. While her daughter Lelia ran a mail order business from Denver, Madam Walker and her husband traveled throughout the southern and eastern states.
They settled in Pittsburgh in 1908 and opened Lelia College to train “hair culturists.” In 1910 Walker moved to Indianapolis, Indiana where she established her headquarters and built a factory.
She began to teach and train other black women in order to help them build their own businesses. She also gave lectures on political, economic and social issues at conventions sponsored by powerful black institutions.
After the East St. Louis Race Riot, she joined leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in their efforts to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime. In 1918 at the biennial convention of the National Association Of Colored Woman (NACW) she was acknowledged for making the largest contribution to save the Anacostia (Washington, DC) house of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. She continued to donate money throughout her career to the NAACP, the YMCA, and to black schools, organizations, individuals, orphanages, and retirement homes.
In 1917 she moved to her Irvington-on-Hudson, New York estate, Villa Lewaro, which had been designed by Vertner Tandy, the first licensed black architect in New York State and a founding member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. The house cost $250,000 to build.
Madam C.J. Walker died at Villa Lewaro on Sunday, May 25, 1919 from complications of hypertension. She was 51. At her death she was considered to be the wealthiest African-American woman in America and known to be the first self-made female American millionaire. Her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, became the president of the C.J Walker Manufacturing Company.
While according to Walker’s New York Times obituary, “she said herself two years ago [in 1917] that she was not yet a millionaire, but hoped to be some time,” – Madam C.J. Walker is acknowledged in the Guinness Book of Records as the first woman to became a millionaire by her own achievements.