Madam CJ Walker created her own line of black hair care products and became the first black female millionaire in the U.S. However, she suffered tremendous tragedy early in life.
Madam CJ Walker Before Fame And Fortune
Born Sara Breedlove to parents working on a cotton plantation as freed slaves, her parents died of yellow fever when she was six. She relocated to Vicksburg Mississippi to live with her sister.
Sara married at 14 to escape abuse from her brother-in-law. She had one daughter before her husband Moses “mysteriously died“. She and daughter A’lelia moved to St. Louis where her brothers worked as barbers. Events soon occurred that propelled her into fame as Madam CJ Walker.
Becoming Madam CJ Walker
After a brief second marriage, Sara married a third time, to newspaper sales agent Charles Joseph Walker. Sara attended St. Paul AME Church, networked with women of the budding National Association of Colored Women and worked as a laundress and cook.
She began losing her hair while only in her 30s. Whether stress, harsh hair care products or other factors caused her hair loss, Sara first sought advice from her brothers. She began using and selling products made by Annie Malone, a black female entrepreneur and experimented with different ingredients to make her own hair care products.
After creating and applying a product using ingredients that came to her in a dream, people noticed the difference in Sara’s hair as it grew back and looked healthier. Other black women wanted her products.
Sara changed her name to Madam CJ Walker and marketed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” Time quotes her as saying it made her hair grow back “Faster than it had even fallen out.”
The expertise of her husband in the newspaper business helped his wife promote her products in black newspapers. She also employed women to sell her products door-to-door.
First Black Female Millionaire
Her personal approach and her “beauty culturalists” are credited for Madam CJ Walker’s success after she established headquarters in Denver. She gave public demonstrations and had the wherewithal to utilize “before” and “after” shots, including those of herself to prove that her products worked.
She incorporated in 1910, made herself sole shareholder and moved the headquarters to Indianapolis, where she first garnered national attention.
Business, Philanthropy and Activism
After opening a factory, hair and nail salon and training facility in Indianapolis, Madam Walker received national attention upon donating $,1000 towards the building fund of the local “colored” YMCA. After moving to New York, she contributed $5,000 to the anti-lynching movement and got involved in Harlem’s social and political life.
She paid employees exceptional wages of $5 to $15 a day while white unskilled workers typically averaged $11 a week. She said, “I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavor to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race.”
By the time of the 1917 Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America Convention in Philadelphia, she was a self-made millionaire, giving large sums of money to charities and funding several scholarships at the historically black Tuskegee Institute.
Madam CJ Walker succumbed to hypertension in 1919 at age 51.