MADAME C.J. WALKER, AMERICA’S FIRST BLACK FEMALE MILLIONAIRE
Madame C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867. The fifth child of Owen and Minerva, Louisiana sharecroppers, she was the first in their family to be born free after the Emancipation Proclamation. Her early life was very hard. She was orphaned at age six; married at fourteen to Moses McWilliams; and widowed at age twenty with a young daughter A’Lelia.
Sarah took two year old A’Lelia and moved to St Louis. There she got a job as a laundress and entered night school. She also became active in the National Association of Colored People. It was also there that she met Charles J. Walker, the man who would become her second husband and inspire the name of her eventual empire.
Walker was a talented promoter whose story of how she came up with her products often varied. What is known is in the 1890’s Walker’s own hair loss prompted her to seek a cure. It is believed likely her work as a laundress contributed to the hair loss because of her exposure to harsh lye soap, heat and hot water. For a variety of reasons at that time, it was common for Black women to have hair loss. Many of them wore head wraps to hide their problem. Walker did not want to do that because she believed the head wrap was a symbol of a lower social class.
She embarked on a search for a cure. She drew on her experience as a laundress and what she had learned about the properties of cleaners like lye soap. She experimented with home remedies and she learned from products she could purchase. However, few products were made for the texture and curls of Black women’s hair. Around 1903 Walker did begin to use Annie Tumbo’s Poro line of products like the Great Wonderful Hair Grower. Apparently, these products were beneficial to Walker’s hair problem so she became a salesperson for the company.
In 1905 Walker moved to Denver to sell these products while continuing to work on creating her own line of products. During this time she also had a job as a cook for pharmacist Edmund L. Scholtz who may have helped her with the chemistry of such products.
The next year she married Charles J. Walker and began calling herself Madame C.J. Walker, a name she kept even after their marriage ended. By this time she had developed her own line of products. Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company began selling Madame C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. Her early products also included Glossine (a pressing oil) and a vegetable shampoo. Her homemade products were sold directly to Black women and her personal approach made her extremely popular to an ever-growing following of loyal customers. She went on to employ a fleet of sales women she called “beauty culturalists”.
At first Charles Walker helped his wife with advertising, marketing and mail orders but, as the business expanded, they grew apart. They were soon divorced.
In 1908, Walker opened a beauty school and factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1910, she moved her company’s headquarters to Indianapolis and left the management of the Pittsburgh branch to her daughter. At the height of production, the Madame C.J. Walker Company employed more than three thousand people, mostly Black women selling her products door-to-door.
The wealth she amassed gave her a lifestyle far from that in which she grew up. But her reputation as an entrepreneur was matched by her reputation as a philanthropist. She encouraged her employees to give back to their communities and gave them bonuses when they did. When there were few jobs for women, she provided them and promoted female talent within her company. Her company charter stipulated that only a woman could be president. Her generous contributions to charities included educational causes, the NAACP, the Black YMCA; and she provided scholarships for women at Tuskegee Institute.
Madame C.J. Walker passed away May 25, 1919, at her country home in Irvington-on-Hudson, from hypertension. She was fifty-one. The plans for her Indianapolis headquarters were not completed until 1927.