Women’s History: Sarah Breedlove aka Madam C.J. Walker – Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Activist (December 23, 1867-May 20, 1919)
Sarah Breedlove, AKA Madam C.J. Walker, was an African American businesswoman, and one of the first self-made millionaires of any race or gender. Born in Delta, Louisiana, just two years after the Civil war ended, Sarah became an orphan at 7, a wife at 14, a mother at 17, and a widow at 19.
Sarah attended Poro College, which was owned and operated by Annie Malone Turnbo, an African American chemist, inventor and entrepreneur, as well as a mentor to her.
In 1905 Sarah developed a scalp condition and she worked with a variety of herbs and ointments to cure herself. Sarah was so successful, friends and neighbors asked her for help in curing their hair issues. Encouraged by her success, she decided to sell her hair care products to African American women everywhere. Sarah Breedlove said that prior to her hair care endeavors, she had picked cotton, been a washer woman, and a cook before she promoted herself to a business woman. She traveled all over the country giving lectures, and demonstrations.
Sarah’s first husband was Moses McWilliams, and he and Sarah had a daughter named A’Lelia. When A’Lelia was only 2, her father died. Sarah and her young daughter moved to St. Louis, where she met and married her second husband, Charles J. Walker. Charles helped Sarah create advertisements for her hair care products and cosmetics, and he encouraged her to use the “classier’ name, Madam C.J. Walker. Since White people called Black men “boys,” and Black women “auntie,” Sarah was pleased to have everyone call her Madam.
In 1908, Walker opened a factory and beauty school in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and by 1910 she transferred all her business operations to Indianapolis, Indiana. The factory was very successful. Not only did they make hair care products and cosmetics, they trained sales beauticians. The ladies who worked for her were called Walker Agents, very similar to the model Annie Malone Turnbo started at Poro College, where the ladies were called Poro Agents. Walker’s agents worked in the black communities and provided employment opportunities. They promoted Walker’s philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness” as a means of advancing the status of African Americans. In 1913, after Walker and her husband divorced, she traveled to South America and the Caribbean to recruit and teach others her hair care methods.
While her mother traveled, A’Lelia purchased property in Harlem, New York, and in 1916, Walker moved her day to day operation to Harlem. The factory in Indianapolis was still operating successfully. While in New York, Madam Walker became involved in the political culture at the time, and she became an activist, and a philanthropist. Walker was extremely generous, and donated thousands to educational scholarships, NAACP, as well as the National Conference on Lynching.
Madam C. J. Walker died of hypertension on May 32, 1919 at the young age of 51. At the time of her death her personal fortune was estimated at between $600,000 and $700,000, and her business was estimated at more than one million dollars. Her home, Villa Lewardo in Irvington-on-the-Hudson was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1998, the US Postal Service issued a stamp of Madam C.J. Walker as part of its Black Heritage series.
Walker dealt with very real systematic challenges, having to deal not only with unchecked racism but also with sexism from seemingly unlikely sources. For instance, Walker was not allowed to speak at Booker T. Washington’s National Business League, even though she was one of the most successful people of her generation. The attitudes of many men at the time excluded women from decision-making roles, and women did not get the right to vote until 1920.
In spite of the challenges, Walker reached back and helped educate and employ many in the hair care and cosmetics industry. Nearly 100 years after Madam Walker’s death, a question: where are the modern-day C.J. Walkers – women who can create thousands of jobs and provide entrepreneurship opportunities for so many? In an article titled, “Where is today’s Madame CJ Walker?,” Dr. Julianne Malveaux suggests that if today’s labor market will not absorb the young people who are entering the job market, then a new generation of African American Entrepreneurs must.
Today, women like Cathy Hughes (TV Radio One), Sheila Johnson (co-founder of BET), and Oprah Winfrey stand on Madame C.J. Walker’s shoulders. A’Lelia Bundles, the great-granddaughter of Madame C.J. Walker, and the keeper of the family history, is working with Sephora cosmetics stores to bring back four formulas of Walker’s products and make them available again. This is the gift from Madame Walker that keeps on giving, because much needed jobs are created, thus chipping away at our high unemployment rate. Dr. Malveaux said, “the need for Black entrepreneurs is critical and in the name of Madame C.J. Walker, we need to keep our entrepreneurial gene thriving.”
Submitted by: Sharon Smith-Knight
Anderson, Niele. “Madam C.J. Walker: An American Legacy of Success, Love and Prosperity.” Los Angeles Sentinel, 23 Feb. 2017, n.p.
Malveaux, Julienne. “Women’s History Month: Where is Today’s Madame CJ Walker?” New Journal and Guide, Mar. 2016, n.p.
Subjects: Business people; Entrepreneurs; Philanthropists; Women’s history