Madame C.J. Walker has the notable distinction of being the first woman millionaire of any race on record in the United States. Her popular hair care products brought her fame and wealth in the early 1900s, when African Americans were still struggling to establish themselves in the aftermath of slavery. Walker’s financial success was accompanied by a generous spirit and strong sense of responsibility to her race. Her philanthropy and her efforts to empower others mark her as an extraordinary citizen and human being.
Madame C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, to a family of sharecroppers in Delta, Louisiana. She helped the family survive by picking cotton along with them. In 1874, yellow fever claimed the lives of both parents, orphaning the Breedlove siblings.
Four years later, Sarah and her sister headed to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to make their living as washerwomen. By age 14, Sarah Breedlove had met and married Jeff McWilliams and soon gave birth to a daughter, Lelia. Shortly thereafter, Jeff McWilliams was killed, leaving his wife Sarah a widow and single mother. Sarah Breedlove McWilliams had scant means of supporting herself and her child, but plenty of drive and determination. She headed north to St. Louis in 1887 and set up shop in the only trade she knew – washing clothes.
McWilliams joined the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, and attended night school to obtain the education she’d had to forego as a child in Mississippi. McWilliams was able to make a little extra money on the side by selling Poro, a hair product made by Annie N. Turnbo Malone. Sarah Breedlove McWilliams was determined to make a better life for herself and her little girl.
While attending a World’s Fair inn 1904, Sarah McWilliams was impressed by the appearance and demeanor of Margaret Murray Washington, wife of Tuskegee founder Booker T. Washington. The struggling young mother took Washington’s example to heart.
The events that followed changed her life forever. McWilliams, who had been plagued by an itchy scalp and breaking hair, allegedly had a dream one night in which the formula for an effective scalp treatment was revealed to her. She sent away for the ingredients and became something of a kitchen chemist, working to develop her own product for sale.
In July of 1905, 37-year-old Sarah McWilliams moved to the bustling young city of Denver, where there was less competition and a growing, largely untapped market in Black hair care. McWilliams worked as a cook to support herself and her daughter while she expanded on her business idea. She developed three products – Wonderful Hair Grower, Glossine and Vegetable Shampoo. She also redesigned the steel hot comb, originally popular in France, and customized it for use on African American hair. In January 4,1906 she married C.J. Walker, a businessman who encouraged her to keep expanding her business. Sarah Breedlove McWilliams took her husband’s name, adding the grand title of “Madame” to the beginning of it. The Mme. C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was born.
Madame C.J. Walker traveled the country, marketing her products and the Walker hair care method. Walker’s own hair proved to be the best advertisement for her business. She used before and after photographs of herself to show the results. The Black women who were her customers loved the results they were able to achieve with these new products, including the ability to change the texture of their hair through “pressing” with the hot comb. They also likely loved patronizing a business started by someone like themselves.
Walker moved to Pittsburgh in 1908, where she opened a beauty parlor and founded Lelia College for teaching the Walker method. It was the fulfillment of Walker’s dream to help others become self-sufficient. Hundreds of women achieved personal success as Walker hair culturists.
By the time Walker moved to Indiana a few years later, her business was bringing in an average of $3,000 weekly. She became an energetic activist in the interest of her race and of women. She sued the Isis Theater in Indianapolis for racial discrimination and designed a cultural arts center in Philadelphia for African Americans. She demanded the floor at the National Negro Business League convention in 1912, earning the respect of the male audience in attendance. She campaigned against the lynching of Blacks by marching in the streets of Harlem, staged a protest along with other citizens in the White House, and made the largest donation in history at that time to the anti-lynching fund of the NAACP. And, according to Walker’s wishes, a woman was always at the helm during the 78 years that the Walker Manufacturing Company remained in business.
Madam CJ Walker took ill and died at her New York mansion on May 25, 1919. The Madame Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis is a standing monument to her legacy. Walker was honored by the US Postal Service in 1998 with an official stamp bearing her likeness.
The official Madam C.J. Walker web site can be found at http://www.madamcjwalker.com.