She is known as the first self-made female millionaire in the history of the United States. However, the life of Madam C J Walker did not always mirror the elegant lifestyle she enjoyed during her latter years. In fact, by the world’s standards, it is a real rags to riches story. Nevertheless, it’s a direct result of self-determination coupled with opportunity and a relentless pursuit to help others realize their dreams.
Despite the odds of the early 1900s, Sarah Breedlove stepped out on faith, with a desire to take care of her daughter and empower the women of the African-American community.
Madam C. J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, the fifth child of Owen and Minerva Breedlove near Delta Louisiana on December 23, 1867. However, she was the first of the six children to be born free. The cotton plantation where she spent her early years is also the place her parents were emancipated from slavery. Unfortunately, the area was struck by yellow fever, and her mother passed away in 1874, and her father would die the next year, both for unconfirmed reasons. Orphaned at the age of seven, Sarah was sent to live with her brother-in-law and sister, Louvinia. Two years after the passing of her father, the three of them moved to Vicksburg, MS, where it is believed Sarah did household work and picked cotton to earn a meager living.
Sarah did not attend school as a child. However, could read and write. She was indigent and worked hard from an early age. At the age of fourteen, Breedlove married Moses McWilliams, to escape the abuse she endured at the hands of her brother-in-law. Four years later, on June 6, 1885, the newlyweds had their first and only child she named Lelia. Then tragedy struck just two years later, when her husband Moses died, leaving Breedlove to care for and raise Lelia on her own. Armed with the desire to raise her child in the best possible environment, she moved to be with her brothers in St. Louis where some of them had become barbers.
A higher level of interdependence
Shortly after her arrival in St. Louis, Breedlove was able to find work as a washerwoman earning a $1.50 a day. She attended night school, and the meager earnings allowed her to send Lelia to public school. As she became acclimated to her new community, she joined the St. Paul A.M.E. Church where she networked with other city dwellers. Her second husband, John Davis proved to be unreliable and unfaithful, which caused a swift end to their marriage. At 35, and no hope, Sarah realized something had to change. She told the New York Times, “I was at my tub one morning with a heavy wash before me. As I bent over, I said to myself, ‘What are you going to do when you grow old, and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl.” Some might say it was a wake-up call for the divorced single mother of one.
In addition to the normal stresses of life, she lived during the height of the Jim Crow era. The lynching of a black person was legal, and although slavery had been outlawed, segregation continued to grow. As if the uncertainty of her future was not enough, Sarah was also losing her hair. Many Americans in the early 1900s did not have indoor plumbing and electricity. Therefore, infrequent bathing and harsh chemicals caused scalp issues for many, which may explain the hair loss. Sarah took upon herself to remedy the situation and discovered a fantastic product for her type of hair.
Scalp issue leads to a significant discovery
In 1904, the future began to look brighter for Sarah. She discovered the Great Wonderful Hair Grower. The hair care product was developed and sold by an Illinois native with a chemistry background. Annie Turnbo had recently moved her business to St. Louis, which is also about the same time Sarah met and started dating Charles Joseph (CJ.) Walker. The hair grower worked great, and after she had used Turnbo’s products for about a year, Sarah became a local sales agent and personal advocate for the product that helped to restore her self-image. Although at the time of her move to Denver in 1905, she was still a Turnbo agent. Sarah had heard about the issues African-American women were having with their hair because of the high and dry air. In addition to the fact that her sister-in-law’s family lived there. CJ soon followed, and in 1906 they were married.
The Walker System
As she begins life as a new wife for the third time, she starts a new business and officially changed her name to Madam CJ. Walker. Madam Walker said she awoke from a dream shortly after her wedding day in which a black man told her what to mix for her hair. Subsequently, she ordered some ingredients from Africa and called it “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” That initial investment of only $1.25 would prove to be one of the greatest regarding ROI. Despite the similarities between her product and the one she sold for Turnbo, Madam Walker effectively distinguished her brand and spread the word about her new formula for hair growth. With the help of her husband CJ, Mrs. Walker advertised her products in America’s growing black newspapers. She remained innovative by using the faces of black women and herself in the ‘before and after’ shots to demonstrate the effectiveness of her products.
The company quickly grew by her endeavor to travel door to door, and from church to church. She recruited and trained sales agents all over the country while encouraging black women to take control of their economic futures. Madam Walker positioned herself as a hair culturist and wisely transformed her customers into promotional agents. She offered an excellent commission to women that multiplied her ability to reach new markets. Eventually training the Walker System to at least 40,000 women known as Walker Agents. Walker said in 1914, “I am not just satisfied with earning money for myself, I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.” Nevertheless, it was more than about the money; she also trained her fellow black women to be refined. Wherever Madam Walker traveled she spread hope as a symbol of unity and the voice of liberty for the Black community.
From Denver to Philadelphia, to Indianapolis, Madam CJ Walker paved the road to prosperity, peace, and opportunity for a better way of life for many. Her philanthropy helped to build a YMCA in Indianapolis for colored (as it was referred to) people. She was also a regular contributor to the NAACP and other formidable organizations. Her example of giving became a model for all women-owned businesses.
The odds of a black woman obtaining any measurable success at anything during the early 1900s were stifling. The Jim Crow laws and other policies relegated only a few opportunities to people of color which meant working as sharecroppers or other low-wage jobs. Madam Walker defied the odds and stepped out on faith to become the first female self-made millionaire in the United States.
By Jireh Gibson
PBS: Madam Walker, the First Black American Woman to Be a Self-Made Millionaire
Encyclopedia of World Biography: Madame C. J. Walker Biography
Top Image Courtesy of Walker Family Archives