Madam C. J. Walker was an entrepreneur, civil rights activist, philanthropist, and one of the wealthiest self-made women in the US.
Walker was born in 1867 in Louisiana under the name Sarah Breedlove. Her parents and older siblings were enslaved on a plantation, but she was the first child in her family to be born free after the Emancipation Proclamation. She was orphaned at 7 years old, and moved to Mississippi to become a domestic servant.
Walker suffered a scalp ailment that caused hair loss. In an attempt to cure her condition, she began experimenting with making home remedies. In 1905, she moved to Denver to work for hair-care product entrepreneur Annie Malone. While there, she continued developing her own products. She married her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker. Taking his name, combined with the term “Madam” used by women in the French beauty industry, she re-named herself. Her business became Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.
She and her husband began traveling around the South, giving presentations on the “Walker Method” of straightening hair by using her pomade, a brush, and hot combs. Profits grew, and she opened a factory and beauty school in Pittsburgh and made Indianapolis her company’s headquarters, where she trained sales agents called “Walker Agents.”
When she and her third husband divorced, she started selling internationally in Latin America and the Caribbean. She built a mansion in Harlem that she called Villa Lewaro, designed by an accomplished African-American architect, Vertner Tandy. And, she became a philanthropist. She funded scholarships for black women to attend college, homes for the elderly, and made donations to organizations that were focused on improving the lives of black people, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Conference on Lynching.
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.” – Walker, addressing the gathering of the National Negro Business League in 1912.
Walker’s fortune ultimately helped fund parts of the Harlem Renaissance. She and her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, would host parties at the estate for guests such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and W.E.B. Du Bois.
Madam C. J. Walker is often credited as being the first African-American millionaire, but she herself was quoted as saying in 1917 (two years before her death) that she “was not yet a millionaire, but hoped to be some time.” The woman who was most likely the first millionaire was the woman who gave Walker her start, Annie Malone.