As a manufacturer of hair care products for African American women, Madame C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove (1867-1919), became one of the first American women millionaires.
Madame C.J. Walker, named Sarah Breedlove at birth, was born December 23, 1867, in Delta, Louisiana, to Owen and Minerva Breedlove, both of whom were emancipated slaves. The Breedloves worked as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation. At the age of six Sarah was orphaned, and in 1878, after the cotton crop failed and a yellow fever epidemic struck, the young girl moved to Vicksburg to live with her sister Louvinia and to work as a domestic. She worked hard from the time that she was very young, suffered great poverty, and had little opportunity to get an education. In order to escape the oppressive environment created by Louvinia's husband, Sarah married Moses McWilliams when she was only fourteen years old. At eighteen she gave birth to a daughter she named Lelia, and at twenty she was widowed.
Sarah then decided to move to St. Louis, where she worked as a laundress and in other domestic positions for eighteen years, joined St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopal Church, and put her daughter through the public schools and Knoxville College. Sarah, who was barely literate, was especially proud of her daughter's educational accomplishments.
By the time she was in her late thirties, Sarah was contending with hair loss because of a combination of stress and damaging hair care products. After experimenting with various methods, she developed a formula of her own that caused her hair to grow again quickly. She often recounted that after praying about her hair, she was given the formula in a dream. When friends and family members noticed how Sarah's hair grew back, they began to ask her to duplicate her product for them. She began to prepare her formula at home, selling it to friends and family and marketing it door to door.
With the help of her family and her second husband, Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaperman whom she had married in 1906 after she moved to Denver, she began to advertise a growing number of hair care products. She also adopted her husband's initials and surname as her professional name, calling herself Madam C.J. Walker for the rest of her life, even after the marriage ended. Her husband helped her develop mail marketing techniques for her products, usually through the medium of African American owned newspapers. When their small business was successful, with earnings of about $10 a day, Walker felt that she should continue to expand, but her husband felt that she was too ambitious. Rather than allow her husband's wishes to restrain her, the couple separated.
Walker's business continued to develop, as she not only marketed her hair care products but also tutored African American men and women in their use, recruiting a group called "Walker Agents." Her products were often used in conjunction with a metal comb that was heated on the stove and used to straighten very curly hair. She also began to manufacture a facial skin cream. The hair process was controversial because many felt that African American women should wear their hair in natural styles rather than attempt to change the texture from curly to straight. In spite of critics, Walker's hair care methods gained increasing popularity among African American women, who enjoyed products designed especially for them. This resulted in growing profits for Walker's business and an increasing number of agents who marketed the products for her door to door.
Working closely with her daughter Lelia (who later changed her name to A'Lelia), Walker opened a school for "hair culturists" in Pittsburgh—Lelia College—which operated from 1908 to 1910. In 1910 the Walkers moved to Indianapolis, where they established a modern factory to produce their products. They also began to hire African American professionals who could direct various aspects of their operation. Among the workers were tutors who helped Walker get a basic education.
Walker traveled throughout the nation demonstrating her products, recruiting salespersons and practitioners, and encouraging African American entrepreneurs. Her rounds included conventions of African American organizations, churches, and civic groups. Not content with her domestic achievements, Walker traveled to the Caribbean and Latin America to promote her business and to recruit individuals to teach her hair care methods. Observers estimated that Walker's company had about three thousand agents for whom Walker held annual conventions where they were tutored in product use, hygienic care techniques, and marketing strategies. She also gave cash awards to those who were most successful in promoting sales.
At A'Lelia's urging, Walker purchased property in New York City in 1913, with the belief that a base in that city would be important. In 1916 she moved to a luxurious townhouse she had built in Harlem, and a year later to a posh estate called Villa Lewaro she had constructed at Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.
Although Walker and her daughter lived lavishly, they carefully managed each aspect of their business, whose headquarters remained in Indianapolis, and gave to a number of philanthropic organizations. According to rumor, Walker's first husband was lynched. Perhaps it was partially for this reason that Walker supported anti-lynching legislation and gave generously to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, eventually willing that organization her estate in Irvington-on-Hudson. The Walkers generously supported religious, educational, charitable, and civil rights organizations.
Although cautioned by her doctors that her fast-paced life was impairing her health, Walker did not heed the warnings. On May 25, 1919, when she was 51 years old, she died of hypertension. Her funeral service was held in Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New York City. Renowned African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune delivered the eulogy, and Walker was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Her daughter, A'Lelia, succeeded her as president of the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.
Further Reading on C. J. Walker
No full-length biography of Walker is available. Many articles, biographical sketches, and juvenile books have been written about Walker (sometimes called madam), including some by her great-great granddaughter, A'Lelia Bundles. Bundles' children's book is entitled Madam C.J. Walker (1991). Other books for youths are Penny Colman, Madam C.J. Walker: Building a Business Empire (1994); Marian Taylor, Madam C.J. Walker (1993); and Pat McKissack, Madam C.J. Walker: Self-Made Millionaire (1992). Biographical sketches of Walker appear in reference works such as the Dictionary of American Biography, Notable American Women, Notable Black American Women, Black Women in America, and the Dictionary of American Negro Biography.