AMPLIFY: Madam C.J. Walker
Happy February, HerStry Readers! This month, we’re taking a look at the life of Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first (reported) self-made black woman millionaire. Sure, there are a lot of qualifiers there, but Madam Walker reached this accomplishment in the early 1900’s. If the term “self-made” is sending shivers down your spine, you may remember there was a lot of debate about the term in July 2018, after Forbes declared Kylie Jenner the youngest self-made billionaire without addressing the enormous jumpstart she had, coming from a wealthy and well-known family. Regardless of where you stand on that debate, there is no questioning that Madam C.J. Walker was self-made by all definitions.
On December 23, 1867, Sarah Breedlove, who would be later known as Madam C.J. Walker, was born on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana. Her parents were former slaves who became sharecroppers on the same plantation (1, 2). By the age of seven, Breedlove is orphaned and lives with her older sister, Louvenia (2). Both Breedlove sisters worked on cotton fields in Delta and in nearby Vicksburg, Mississippi to support themselves until Sarah married her first husband in 1882, at the age of fourteen (2). It is believed that Breedlove married at such a young age to escape her sister’s abusive husband (1). At age seventeen, Breedlove gave birth to her first and only child, Leila (later known as A’Leila Walker) on June 6, 1885 (2). This first name would be passed down through generations; A’Leila Bundles is Breedlove’s great-granddaughter and president of the Madam Walker/A’Lelia Walker Family Archives (2).
It is easy to breeze through the early part of a person’s history without acknowledging that these formative years often make the rest of their story possible. The first twenty years of Breedlove’s life were not pleasant and they were certainly not easy, but it was during this time that she learned she had an incomparable work ethic and how to be resourceful. With this in mind, it takes almost another twenty years before Breedlove becomes Madam C.J. Walker, a master businesswoman with a haircare empire.
We begin the next phase of Breedlove’s life with the death of her husband, Moses McWilliams, in 1887. His cause of death is unknown, but what we do know is at the age of 19, Breedlove is widowed with a young daughter (1). Breedlove was impoverished in the Deep South for a brief period of time, but by 1889 she decides to move north to St. Louis, where four of her brothers are established barbers (2). In St. Louis, Breedlove works as a laundress and cook, making as little as $1.50/day. It was on that income that she was able to save enough money to send her daughter to public school. Breedlove also joined the St. Paul AME Church and the National Association of Colored Women, where she was inspired by successful black women and men who introduced her to new ways of thinking and viewing the world (2).
The 1890s are not much kinder to Breedlove than the 1880s or 70s were, but it is the 1890s that pave the way for a new era of haircare. Throughout this decade Breedlove begins to suffer from severe hair loss, losing virtually all of her hair. She consults her brothers for advice and begins experimenting with homemade and store-bought remedies (2). In 1894, Breedlove has a short-lived marriage to John Davis that ultimately ends in divorce (3). Throughout the 1890s, Breedlove was at least able to continue providing an education for her daughter. Breedlove’s life trajectory was about the shift in an remarkable way, when she came across a hair care product that finally brought back her hair (and probably her confidence).
In 1904, Breedlove starts using Annie Turnbo Malone’s “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower” and Breedlove’s hair makes its return. Malone is a black woman entrepreneur with a sales team that consists only of black women. Breedlove very quickly goes from enthusiastic customer to dedicated saleswoman for Annie Turnbo Malone (3). By 1905, Breedlove moves from St. Louis to Denver, because she heard that many women had scalp issues due to the high altitude and dry air that comes with Colorado (2). Of course, this would make Denver a perfect market the “Wonderful Hair Grower” saleswoman. Her then-boyfriend and salesman for the St. Louis Courier newspaper, Charles J. Walker, shortly follows Breedlove to Denver (1).
In 1906, we finally meet Madam C.J. Walker when Breedlove marries Charles J. Walker and changes her name. It is also in 1906 that Madam C.J. Walker starts her business and begins selling “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” Walker claims to have learned of the recipe for her product in a dream; a black man came to her while she slept and told her that the key to her success was a product in Africa. The story goes that Madam C.J. Walker sent away for this ingredient, with a total investment of $1.25 (3). I wish I could provide you, dear reader, with more information but this part of her history is murky at best. The story goes that the concoction worked so well, and Walker was such a strong believer, that she spent the next year and a half going from door-to-door, selling her new product. By 1908, Walker was successful enough to open Leila College in Pittsburgh (2). Leila College was meant to train Walker’s “hair culturalists,” the women that would be the new sales team for Madam C.J. Walker.
In 1910, Walker relocated yet again, this time to Indianapolis. At this point in history, Indianapolis was the largest inland manufacturing hub in the country. Because of this, Walker built a factory, a hair and manicure salon, and another training school (3). In the same year, Walker made headlines in the black press when she donated $1000 to help with the construction of a YMCA for black people in Indianapolis (2). By the end of 1910, Walker’s third marriage had ended in divorce but Walker elected to keep her name, given the amount of recognition she had achieved as Madame C. J. Walker (3).
In an effort to continue growing her brand, Walker traveled to Central America and the Caribbean in 1913, and moved her daughter into their Harlem mansion, designed by black architect Vertner Tandy (2). Walker’s attorney wrote that there was “nothing equal to it… not even on Fifth Avenue” (2). In 1916, Walker finally started to let go of some of the day-to-day operations of her business. She moved into her Harlem mansion, and left the operations of her Indianapolis plant in the hands of Ransom and Alice Kelly, her factory forelady and a former school teacher. However, Walker continued to work in New York City and oversee the operations there.
In the last few years of her life, Madam C.J. Walker became more politically active. In 1916, she donated $5000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement and in 1917 she visited the White House to present a petition advocating for federal anti-lynching legislation with other black leaders of Harlem. This White House visit happened following the lynching of over three dozen black people by mob of white men in East St. Louis, IL.
I do want to take a moment here to stop. I grew up in Illinois and not once was this horrific incident mentioned. To point to a larger issue, I don’t ever recall learning about the violent race riots that happened throughout the country. Reports of this specific East St. Louis massacre claim that nine white lives were lost, while somewhere between 40-250 black lives were lost. If the discrepancy in those death tolls shocks you, it should. History can tell us precisely how many white people died, but there is over a two hundred-person swing in the death toll of black people.
In 1917, Walker held the Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention in Philadelphia. It was potentially the first national gathering of businesswomen in the US at the time (2). She spoke to her hair culturalists about the state of America, and her words are still devastatingly relevant to Americans now:
“This is the greatest country under the sun… But we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice. We should protest until the American sense of justice is so aroused that such affairs as the East St. Louis riot be forever impossible.” (2)
Madam C.J. Walker employed over 40,000 black men and women in the US, Central America, and the Caribbean in her lifetime. In 1917, she established the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association (2). A person who reaches Madam Walker’s level of wealth in such a short amount of time can be easily unrooted from reality, but Walker stayed firmly grounded. Throughout every step of her career she worked to advance and better the lives of as many black people as she could. In fact, the wealthier she became, the more philanthropic she became. Walker consistently donated to the YMCA and paid for the tuition of six black students at Tuskegee College. Before her death, she revised her will and ensured that two-thirds of her future net profits went to charities and schools (3).
By 1919, Madam C.J. Walker suffered from kidney failure and hypertension, ultimately dying at the young age of 51 due to the toll both ailments were taking on her body. Walker died at her Villa Lewaro estate in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. Her company sales were over $500,000 that year and her assets well exceeded that, making her the first reported self-made black woman millionaire in America’s history. She had property in Harlem, St. Louis, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis (3).
Dearest HerStry readers, I leave you with my invitation for feedback. Suggestions, criticisms, questions, corrections - we want it all! We’re trying to help educate the HerStry community on the badass women of our past, but we still have a lot to learn ourselves. There is so much more to Madam C.J. Walker. All of our sources are provided at the end of this column, so please take a moment to read through each one. Please share with us any interesting facts you might learn (or already know) about Madam C.J. Walker and we’ll be happy to pass them along to the HerStry community.
Finally, I want to make sure to specifically mention the official website of Madam C.J. Walker, maintained and curated by A’Leila Bundles, www.madamcjwalker.com. There is so much information on Walker thanks to the tireless work of her great-granddaughter. Please take the time to visit this website and learn about this early 1900s entrepreneur.
Madam C.J. Walker's Timeline
Compiled using all sources.
1867: Born December 23 on plantation in Delta, La. to two former slaves, then sharecroppers. Named Sarah Breedlove.
1875: Breedlove is orphaned at the age of 7.
1882: Breedlove Moses McWilliams at the age of 14.
1885: Daughter Leila is born (later known as A’Leila Walker) on June 6.
1887: Husband, Moses McWilliams, dies.
1889: Moves to St. Louis to be with her four brothers
1890s: Begins to suffer from hair loss and eventually loses all of her hair.
1894: Marries John Davis and has a troubled relationship, ultimately ending in divorce.
1904: Starts using Annie Turnbo Malone’s The Great Wonderful Hair Grower and joins Malone’s sales team.
1905: Moves to Denver
1906: Marries Charles J. Walker and changes her name to Madam CJ Walker and starts her business.
1908: Moves to Pittsburgh to establish Leila College, a school made to train “hair culturalists” on Madam CJ Walker products
1910: Moves to Indianapolis and opens her factory, hair and manicure salon, and another training school. Donates $1000 to help build a YMCA for black people in Indianapolis. Divorces Charles J. Walker.
1913: Travels to Central America and the Caribbean to help spread awareness of her brand, and her daughter moves into their Harlem mansion and salon.
1916: Moves to New York, leaves the day-to-day operations of her company in Indianapolis to Ransom and Alice Kelly. Donates $5000 to NAACP’s anti-lynching movement
1917: Visits White House with other leaders of the Harlem community and presented a petition advocating for federal anti-lynching legislation. Holds The Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention in Philadelphia. Founded the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association.
1919: Walker dies at her estate, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York due to kidney failure and complications from hypertension.
Ashlee lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is an Illinois native - grew up in the Chicago suburbs, went to school at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, and lived in the city of Chicago up until 2015. In June 2015, she packed up with her partner and moved to the city she has absolutely fallen in love with, Pittsburgh! When she's not at work, she can typically be found in yoga class, working on the next edition of AMPLIFY, cuddling with George the cat, or enjoying trying to figure out what next home improvement task she is going to take on. Follow her nonsense on Twitter: @trashleeinpgh