Who is Madam C. J. Walker: What did she do?

Women’s History Month 

By Autumn Edwards

Madam C.J. Walker was a talented entrepreneur who created a path forward with her thriving at-home hair care products. She became the first Black woman to become a self-made millionaire in the United States. Trailblazing and creating a legacy all her own, Madam C. J. Walker is an incredible example of dedication, envisioning a dream, and persevering with God’s grace. She was determined to always show generosity to the community supporting her business. Walker contributed scholarships to the Tuskegee Institute, $1,000 to the Black YMCA’s building fund in Indianapolis, and $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund, to name a few. However, the start of her remarkable growth as a businesswoman did not begin on a trouble-free path. It was only after several hardships and trials, and errors that the dreams she had for herself came to fruition. 

In the late 1860s, towards the end of the Civil War, she was born Sarah Breedlove, the first in her family born into freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Orphaned at the tender age of seven, she was alone until she was placed with family in Vicksburg, Mississippi. There she began work as a domestic servant picking cotton in the fields of Delta. 

Years later, to escape her abusive brother-in-law, Sarah married at 14 and had her daughter, A’lelia Walker, before her husband, Moses McWilliams, died in 1887. After the death of her husband, Sarah, now 20 years old, moved with her young child to St. Louis, where she worked as a laundress and cook. As time passed, Sarah reevaluated her worth and goals. She wanted more and was dissatisfied in the struggle to make a living for herself and her daughter. It wasn’t until 1904 that she discovered the World’s Fair in St. Louis. Businesses from all over the country gathered to present the latest and most innovative technological advancements. The various venues inspired Sarah. From there, she began experimenting with at-home remedies to help soothe the scalp and prevent further hair damage. She also used Annie Turnbo Malone’s Great Wonderful Hair Grower, created especially for Black women.

Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.

Madam C. J. Walker

After discovering positive results from her hair regime, Sarah became a Poro sales agent. She sold Annie Turnbo’s products to fellow Black women. At the same time, Sarah perfected her formula at home. It was in 1905 when she remarried for the third time to her husband, Charles Joseph Walker, and changed her name to “Madam” C.J. Walker. She launched her new business, traveling for a year promoting sales for Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula. To ensure her company marketed towards the right audience, she knocked door to door throughout Black areas in the deep south to demonstrate her products’ practical and beneficial uses.

Once her products became a household name, Madam C.J. Walker moved her business to Pittsburgh in 1908. There she began training young women to become “hair culturists,” or as we know the profession today as hair beauticians or stylists, at the Lelia College she founded. Over the next two years, her business grew exponentially. With growth came more demand to supply consumers with her products. Determined to keep her company going, Madam C.J. Walker moved to Indianapolis, a city booming in factories and manufacturing centers. In the early 1910s, she built her factory and another hair and salon training school, employing enthusiastic Black women striving to make a path for themselves.

Madam C.J. Walker made more than she ever imagined by establishing her ways and employing the strengths of her community. She had come far since the days of making hair remedies at home for herself and her neighbors. It took less than a year for her business to gain national headlines. With the added publicity, Walker’s company took to new international heights. In 1913 she traveled to countries like Central America and the Caribbean to expand, share her products, and find new female talent. As a businesswoman, she aided other women’s careers to ensure they had a better path ahead of them when jobs for women, especially Black women, were hard to find. 

The girls and women of our race must not be afraid to take hold of business endeavor and, by patient industry, close economy, determined effort and close application to business, wring success out of a number of business opportunities that lie at their very doors.

Madam C. J. Walker



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