of America's great
rags to riches stories, and a pioneer not only for women, but also
African Americans, Madame C.J. Walker blazed a path as the first black
woman millionaire, and is argued as the first self made woman
millionaire in the U.S.* Her struggles and accomplishments continue as a
shining example of American entrepreneurship.
She was born Sarah Breedlove on December
23, 1867. The youngest of six children, Sarah was the first in the
family officially born "free", just a couple of years after the
Emancipation of slaves in the U.S. Her parents, Owen and Minerva
Breedlove, along with her older siblings, were slaves on a Delta, Louisiana
cotton plantation; the same plantation where she was born.
Sarah experienced hardship early, her
mother dieing when she was only five and her father only a couple of
years later. Orphaned at the age of 7, she went to live with her
older sister and brother-in-law in Vicksburg, Mississippi. There
she would continue working cotton fields until trouble with her
brother-in-law is believed to have led her to marry at age 14 to escape
Her and her husband, Moses McWilliams, would have a daughter, Lelia (a.k.a. A'Lelia) in June of 1885, but the young couple's future
was short, as Moses died just two years later, leaving Sarah a widow at
the age of twenty.
With her two year old daughter in tow,
Sarah decided to leave the South and head for St. Louis, where some of
her brothers had become barbers after leaving Louisiana as "Exodusters"
years before. Finding work as a laundress and cook, Sarah toiled
for $1.50 a day. In 1894 she married her second husband John Davis
but his unreliability as a spouse led her to leave him around 1903.
During this time, like many black women,
Sarah began suffering hair loss due to poor diet and infrequent hair
washing leading to scalp disease. Sarah learned about hair care from her
brothers, and during the World's Fair of 1904, she discovered Annie
Turnbo, another African American hair care entrepreneur, and became a
commission agent for Turnbo's Poro Company. Applying the knowledge from
her brothers, and Poro, Sarah began experimenting with solutions for her
own hair-loss issue. Around the same time, Sarah began dating
Charles Joseph Walker, a salesman for the St. Louis Clarion newspaper.
In 1905, Sarah and her daughter moved to
Denver, Colorado where her sister-in-law's family lived. Charles soon
followed, and the two were married in 1906, with Sarah officially
changing her name to Madame C.J. Walker.
Continuing to sell products for Turnbo's Poro company, Walker awoke from a dream, from which
she is quoted as saying "A big black man appeared to me and told me
what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but
I sent for it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming
in faster than it had ever fallen out." With a starting
investment of $1.25, her new hair concoction would be called "Madam
Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower".
Walker proved to be a marketing guru,
selling her hair product door to door, at churches and clubs, and even a
mail order catalog, promoting not only a hair care system, but also
teaching other black women how to groom and style their hair, and of
course, sell her product. Using her own image on the packaging with
before and after pictures helped her overall image. Her now 21 year old daughter A'Lelia was
put in charge of the mail order operation in Denver, while her and her
husband Charles traveled the south and eastern U.S. expanding the