Entrepreneur. Philanthropist. First female self-made American millionaire. So, how’d she make all that money?
Born 1867, a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana. Born as Sarah Breedlove to two former slaves after the Emancipation proclamation, Sarah had a childhood faced with adversity. As the first child in her family born into freedom, Sarah was soon orphaned at the age of seven and forced to live with her older sister and brother-in-law in Vicksburg, Mississippi. After suffering mistreatment from her brother-in-law, Sarah left home at fourteen and married her first husband, Moses McWilliams. In 1885 they had one daughter, Lelia McWilliams; however, two years later tragedy struck again as Sarah became a widow at the age of 20 and moved to St. Louis to be close to family.
There she met and married Charles Joseph Walker in 1906. Around this time she began to experience hair loss from scalp disease, a common ailment among women during the era due to lack of indoor plumbing and electricity. To treat this she began experimenting with existing products while developing her own formulas. She would eventually began selling her own product, “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” with the support of her husband in 1907 by traveling across the south promoting the “Walker Method”. In 1908 she would open a beauty college in Pittsburgh training “Hair Culturists”, and in 1910 transferred business operations to Indianapolis, Indiana. She had taken on the alias of “Madam C.J. Walker” and over time built an empire that employed several thousand people and was worth the modern day equivalent of millions of dollars.
She would train and teach black women business and leadership skills; Walker’s representatives, “Walker Agents”, were known around black communities across the U.S., promoting the philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness”. She was a contributor to various organizations and causes, including NAACP, NACW, YMCA, black schools, orphanages, and retirement homes improving the lives of many African Americans. Walker had also joined the leaders of the NAACP to support legislation making lynching a federal crime.
In 1919, Walker would die of hypertension at 51; at her death she was known as the wealthiest African American woman and the nation’s first self-made female millionaire.