Future entrepreneur, philanthropist and self-made millionaire Madam C.J. Walker is born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana.
Walker’s parents, sharecroppers who had been enslaved, died when she was seven. Walker eventually left Louisiana and spent her twenties in St. Louis, Missouri. While working as a laundress for about a dollar a day to support herself and her young daughter, she developed a hair loss problem. For working class families at the time, who often lived without indoor plumbing or adequate nutrition, healthy hair could be difficult to maintain. When Walker (who shed her old name after marrying St. Louis newspaperman Charles Joseph Walker) began using products produced by the Black hair-care entrepreneur Annie Turnbo Malone, she found success and was inspired to create her own line of hair care products.
The Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company began selling Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower in 1906, using a mixture of precipitated sulfur, copper sulfate, beeswax, petrolatum, coconut oil and a violet extract perfume. Her company, at its peak, would go on to employ over 25,000 women, nicknamed the “Walker agents,” who made house visits across the United States and Caribbean.
Walker became a highly visible philanthropist focused on supporting initiatives for the economic independence of Black women, as well as the growing anti-lynching movement. She also pushed her agents to engage in political action and organized her agents into state and local clubs, known as the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C.J. Walker Agents. Their first convention, held in 1917, boasted 200 attendees and is believed to have been among the first national gatherings of women entrepreneurs to discuss business and commerce.
In 1912 at an annual gathering of Black entrepreneurs, she laid out her improbable journey from poor orphan to immensely wealthy entrepreneur:
“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.”
By the time of her death at the age of 51 in 1919, Walker’s business was producing an annual revenue of over $500,000 and she had amassed a large real estate portfolio which included the mansion Villa Lewaro in Westchester County, New York and a palatial townhouse in Harlem. Walker is today considered the first female millionaire in America.