Madam C. J. WalkerMadam C.J. Walker (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919) was an American businesswoman, hair care entrepreneur, tycoon and philanthropist. She died after World War I.
Her fortune was made by developing and marketing a hugely successful line of beauty and hair products for black women, under the company she founded Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. The Guinness Book of Records cites Walker as the first female who became a millionaire by her own achievements.
She was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, the first member of her family to be born free. Her parents had been slaves. At age 14, she married a man named Moses McWilliams and was widowed at age 20. She then moved to St. Louis, Missouri to join her brothers. Sarah worked as a laundress for as little as a dollar and a half a day, but she was able to save enough to educate her daughter. While living in St. Louis, she joined St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopal Church, which helped develop her speaking, interpersonal and organizational skills. She was married in 1894 to John Davis and divorced about nine years later.
When she began to lose her hair, she had the idea for a line of hair care products. Like that of most other Americans in the early 1900s, Walker's home lacked indoor plumbing, electricity and central heating. Like many women of that era, she washed her hair only once a month. As a result, she suffered from severe dandruff and scalp disease that nearly caused her to go bald.
In 1905, Davis moved to Denver, Colorado, where she worked as a sales agent for Annie Malone, another black woman entrepreneur who manufactured hair care products. Sarah also consulted with a Denver pharmacist, who analyzed Malone's formula and helped Walker formulate her own products. In addition, she often told reporters that the ingredients for her "Wonderful Hair Grower" had come to her in a dream.
In 1906 she married Charles Joseph Walker, a St. Louis newspaperman, and changed her name to "Madam C.J. Walker". She founded the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company to sell hair care products and cosmetics. Madam Walker divorced Walker in 1910 and moved her growing manufacturing operations from St. Louis to a new industrial complex in Indianapolis. By 1917 she had the largest business in the United States owned by a black person.
“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.”
“There is no royal, flower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life, it is because I have been willing to work hard.”
Walker saw her personal wealth not as an end in itself, but as a means to promote economic opportunities for others, especially black people. She took great pride in the profitable employment — and alternative to domestic labor — that her company afforded many thousands of black women who worked as commissioned agents. Her agents could earn from $5 to $15 per day in an era when unskilled white laborers were making about $11 per week. Marjorie Joyner, who started work as one of her employees, went on to lead the next generation of African-American beauty entrepreneurs.
Walker was known for her philanthropy, leaving two-thirds of her estate to educational institutions and charities, including the NAACP, the Tuskegee Institute and Bethune-Cookman College. In 1919, her $5,000 pledge to the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign was the largest gift the organization had ever received.
Walker had a mansion called "Villa Lewaro" built in the wealthy New York suburb of Irvington on Hudson, New York, near the estates of John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould. She spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on furnishings. The Italianate villa was designed by architect Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state of New York, in 1915. Walker also owned townhouses in Indianapolis and New York.
The grave of Madam C. J. Walker
Madam Walker died on May 25, 1919, at age 51, at her estate Villa Lewaro. She died because of kidney failure and other complications resulting from hypertension. She was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.