Black History Month: Business Pioneer Madame C. J. Walker

Madam C. J. Walker, 1914

Sarah Breedlove the daughter of poor former slaves became known professionally as Madame C. J. Walker, an astute businesswoman, and the nation’s first Black female millionaire.

Born in Louisiana in 1867, Sarah Breedlove grew up in a dirt-floor shack on a plantation near the banks of the Mississippi River. At seven she became an orphan and went to live with an older sister in Mississippi. She was married at 14 and widowed by the time she was 20. She moved to St. Louis and began to earn a living as a washerwoman saving enough money over 18 years to send her daughter to college.

When she began to lose her hair, she searched for products to help her but could find none. She began experimenting with concoctions that she hoped would arrest her hair loss. Somehow, she finally stumbled upon the right set of ingredients and in the process created what she called a “miracle hair grower” which helped her hair to grow back.  She then began selling the product to people she knew.

In 1905 she moved her fledgling business to Denver and decided to invest all of her remaining money into packaging the product to sell commercially. She married newspaperman C. J. Walker and the Madame C.J. Walker line of Black haircare products was born.

C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1911

Madame C. J. Walker’s hair care products were sold by mail and door-to-door through a network of international sales agents in the United States, Costa Rica, Central America, Panama, Jamaica, and Haiti. The products were a huge success and Walker became a multi-millionaire as a result. 

She enjoyed the trappings of wealth but also was a philanthropist who regularly donated to Black organizations, colleges, churches, and to the YMCA and YWCA. She died in 1919 at her New York estate as she was preparing to launch her business into Europe.

Contributed by Adrian Clark, Diversity and Inclusion Officer

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