Born: December 23, 1867
Died: May 25, 1919 (age: 51)
Education: Went to night school and had private tutors
Occupation: Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Social Activist
She became famous as Madam C. J. Walker, although she was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867. Said to be the first woman to succeed as a self-made millionaire, Madam C. J. Walker created a line of beauty and hair products for black women, mainly because of her own hair loss. In addition, she helped thousands of others by opening a school, building a manufacturing empire, donating money to stop “lynching” (the murder of people by mobs before justice has been served), and organizing women to get more into business and activism.
Sarah (Madam CJ) Worked at Age 10
Sarah Breedlove was the fifth child born in 1867 to Owen and Minerva, recently released slaves, in Delta, Louisiana. She was the first of their children to be born free. Both of her parents died before she was eight, and she moved to Mississippi with her sister, Louvinia, to pick cotton at age 10. Sarah married at 14, only to have her husband die two years later. Breedlove and her daughter A’Lelia then moved to St. Louis, where Sarah’s two brothers worked as barbers. There she washed clothes for the grand sum of $1.50 a day. Sarah married for the second time, but her marriage fell apart when her husband was unfaithful.
How Sarah Breedlove Became “Madam C. J. Walker”
Suddenly, in the 1890s, Sarah saw that she was starting to lose her hair. She experimented with homemade remedies and then met Annie Malone, another black entrepreneur. Annie Malone put her to work selling her hair products. One night, Sarah had a powerful dream showing her a potion for growing hair. One special ingredient could only be found in Africa, but she sent for some. Sure enough, her hair began to grow again. Sarah wasted no time and was soon selling “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” door to door. At the same time she came to call herself Madam C. J. Walker (taking the last name of her third husband).
Her daughter A’Lelia graduated from college and took over her mom’s management tasks. With more time on her hands, C. J. Walker gave product presentations to church groups and quickly started a school to teach her salespeople in Pittsburgh. Soon after, she had successfully trained 40,000 reps. Madam CJ was a serious businesswoman who used $10,000 of her own money to construct a manufacturing facility with her name. She attended the National Negro Business League Convention in 1912. When she discovered no female speakers, she spoke directly to the man in charge, Booker T. Washington. The very next year, she took the stage, told her story, and inspired even more people--both women and men.
C. J. Walker Took Criticism In Stride
Walker became a leader and role model in the black community. When almost every product was for whites, she made Black people feel better about themselves. Her business lifted people from poverty; she actively participated as an activist and donor and helped deliver a petition against the criminal act of lynching to the White House. Surprisingly C. J. Walker dealt with criticism. Booker T. Washington himself complained that African-American women shouldn't be told to straighten their hair like whites. But Walker had the last word, showing again that her hair mix's vital ingredient came from Africa.
By the time she died in 1919 at her New York estate, she was partly responsible for fashioning the self-made American businesswoman's role in the 20th century. She had shown herself to the world as a pioneer of the modern black hair-care and cosmetics industry, setting an example in the African-American community for corporate and community giving. The next time you think you can't make it, remember Madam C. J. Walker's words: "I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it!".
4 Mega-Fantastic Facts about Madam C. J. Walker:
- When Walker died, she had about $600,000 to her name. That’s about $8 million in today’s money.
- Long before the power of the internet and TV, Madam C. J. Walker’s products were also popular in Costa Rica, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, and Panama.
- Walker didn’t just train her employees to sell more stuff. She also taught them to budget, build their own businesses, and become independent.
- While Madam C. J. Walker’s company continued to grow, she hired many women to serve in vital management jobs.