Years ago I was writing one of my daily social media posts on the theme of “on this day” and I saw that the day I was writing (23rd December) was the birthday of a woman named Madam C J Walker. Intrigued, I looked into her to see whether to write a post about her for that day, and I was immediately taken with her amazing story. Since then, I have always intended on writing a more in-depth post about her, and today is finally that day!
Although she is known as Madam C J Walker, Walker was actually born under the name Sarah Breedlove. As mentioned, she was born on 23rd December, in 1867. She was born in Louisiana close to the village of Delta on the plantation where her parents had been enslaved. Walker was their first child born into freedom, the Emancipation Proclamation having been issued in 1863. She had four brothers and a sister who had all been enslaved on another plantation. Though she may have been born into freedom, her childhood was still difficult. Her mother died when she was 5 years old, and her father died around a year later. Aged 7, Walker was now an orphan who was forced to work in cotton fields.
With no other options, when she was 10 she moved to Mississippi to live with her sister and her brother-in-law and she started working as a child domestic servant. This life was no better, for her brother-in-law was abusive, and so aged just 14, Walker married a man named Moses McWilliams in 1882. A few years later, in 1885, Walker gave birth to her only surviving child, a daughter named Lelia. Moses died in 1887, making Walker a 20-year-old widow with a young child. Walker thus moved once more to St Louis to join her brothers who had set up a barbershop. Living on a meagre salary as a laundress, Walker managed to save up enough money to send her daughter to school. Walker herself had only had 3 months of formal education in her life, accessed through a church Sunday school.
In 1894 Walker married for a second time, though this marriage was not to last and the couple divorced around 1903. During this time, Walker started to suffer from severe scalp ailments. She had terrible dandruff and started to bald, and this was down to a combination of skin disorders and the harsh products that existed at the time for washing clothes and the body. Walker spoke to her brothers, gathering their knowledge as barbers, and she started to experiment with various products. The big turning point came a year after her divorce when she started working as a commission agent for Annie Malone. Malone was an African American who had been given a chance to go to school, unlike Walker, and had start to experiment with hair products in the early 1900s. She designed new products specifically for African-American women which were not harmful, and these products were sold door-to-door by agents like Walker.
Annie Malone c1920-1927, and images of her products from a leaflet of the same period. National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Whilst working for Malone, Walker started to develop her own products based on the knowledge she had gained. Walker moved to Denver in Colorado, where she met her third husband, a man named Charles Walker. From this time, she became known as Madam C J Walker. With the help of her husband, who advised her on advertising, Walker launched her own line of cosmetic creams. She would travel from door to door, as she had for Malone, and teach black women how to properly care for and style their hair.
Over the next few years Walker’s business grew, and she brought her daughter on board to manage postal orders. Walker and her husband moved to Pennsylvania where they opened a beauty parlour and established a training college for hairdressers. Soon, she opened another base in Indianapolis, then a beauty salon in Harlem. Her business was going from strength to strength, though there was some controversy when Annie Malone accused her of stealing her formula.
Indianapolis soon became the central hub of Walker’s growing empire. Here, she established her headquarters, a factory, hair salon, beauty school and research laboratory, and bought a house to live in. It was very important for Walker to include black women in her company. She wanted to help encourage them to gain economic independence, and so the community made up many of her employees. She certainly was successful in this endeavour, and between 1911 and 1919 her company employed several thousand women, and had trained around 20,000 women.
Walker wanted to extend this work further, and inspired by the National Association of Colored Women, she went on to found the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents. In the summer of 1917, this organisation held its first annual conference attended by 200 people; it is thought that this was one of the first national gatherings of women entrepreneurs to discuss business. Walker also made sure to reinvest in the local community of Indianapolis, and soon after she moved her business operations there she contributed the significant sum of $1,000 to help build a “colored” YMCA.
Walker and her husband had divorced in 1912, and so in 1916 Walker decided it was once again time to move. Leaving the running of her Indianapolis base to a trusted employee, she moved to New York to be with her daughter who had moved to Harlem in 1913. Once again, Walker found herself championing and financing social justice. She contributed $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement, and in 1917 she joined a group who presented a petition to the White House to ask for federal anti-lynching legislation.
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By the late 1910s, Walker had become a sensation. She spent a huge $250,000 to build her own house in New York, for which she commissioned Vertner Tandy, the first licensed black architect in New York City. She used this grand house as a community hub to continue her work inspiring people and advocating for social change. Walker was dedicated throughout her life to use the wealth she had gained from her business to better the world around her. In total she donated around $100,000 to orphanages, institutions, and individuals.
On 25th May 1919, Walker suffered kidney failure and died aged just 51. Even in death she continued her charitable works, asking in her will that two-thirds of future profits from her estate be donated to charity. At the time of her death, it was estimated that Walker was worth between $500,000 and $1 million; she was also considered the wealthiest African-American businesswoman, wealthiest self-made black woman, and has since been recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in America.
Madam C J Walker, Sarah Breedlove, experienced a colossal rise in fortune that her parents could never have envisioned. The first free child born to a family of slaves, Walker struggled through poverty, abuse, and child marriage to provide an education and secure financial future for her daughter. She built a business empire that saw her rise to a wealth few black women in America had yet seen – and indeed that few white women had built by themselves. But through all this, Walker never forgot her past experiences. Her products were designed to help black women like her, but her company also was founded on the same principle. She employed and trained thousands of women just like her, to help provide a better future for women across America, and she used her wealth to benefit the less fortunate and to advocate for real social justice for black people. Her legacy continues today.
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