Icon Spotlight: Madam C.J. Walker, the First Black Woman Millionaire in America

"Whatever success I have attained has been the result of much hard work and many sleepless nights."

C.J. Walker’s Upbringing and Hardships

The first Black woman millionaire in America, born Sarah Breedleave (later known as Madam C. J. Walker), acquired her wealth by creating a line of hair care products specifically for Black women.

She was inspired to develop her hair products after experiencing hair loss, which resulted in the development of the "Walker system" of hair care. C.J. was born to slaves, Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedleave. She was part of that first generation of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The odds were stacked against Miss Breedleave, yet she endeavored that her hard work would pay off. Her hard work and discipline was a testament of her character and the woman she would become.

When a child,Sarah Breedleave lived with her older sister and married at the age of 14 to escape her brother-in-law's abusive household. She gave birth to her daughter, A’Lelia, June 6th, 1885. Two years later, her husband, William McWilliam, passed away.

To make ends meet, she attended night school and worked hard days as a laundress. A talented singer, she also carved the time to participate in her church's choir and was an activist of the “National Association of Colored Women.”Eventually, Sarah remarried to Charles J. Walker, who served as the model for the name of her future empire.

Hair Loss and the birth of an Empire

Sarah experienced significant hair loss due to a scalp ailment she had in the 1890s. In an effort to manage her condition, she started experimenting with both over-the-counter and homemade hair care products. Walker moved to Denver, Colorado, in 1905, with just $1.05 in savings in her pocket. C.J. Walker was a sales agent for Annie Turnbo, the founder of the Poro Company.

After moving to Denver in 1905, she learned the basic chemistry that allowed her to perfect an ointment. In 1906, she married Charles Joseph Walker and became known as Madam Walker. Her products like Wonderful Hair Grower, Glossine, and Vegetable Shampoo began to gain a loyal following, changing her fortunes.

As profits continued to grow, in 1908 Walker opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh, and by 1910, when Walker transferred her business operations to Indianapolis, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company had become wildly successful, with profits that were the modern-day equivalent of several million dollars.

In Indianapolis around the start of the 20th century, Walker established her business, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and utilized it to empower Black women in the face of sexism and racial discrimination. Walker rose to prominence as one of the most well-known black people, and the black press loved her.

Death and Legacy

C.J. Walker donated generously to educational causes and black charities, funding scholarships for women at Tuskegee Institute and donating to the NAACP, the Black YMCA, and dozens of other organizations that helped make black history.

At a time when jobs for black women were limited, she promoted female talent, even stipulating in her company's charter that only a woman could serve as president.

When Madam C. J. Walker's daughter acquired her mother's Manhattan townhouse in the 1920s, it was transformed into a salon for members of the Harlem Renaissance. A black architect, Vertner Tandy, created Villa Lewaro in Irvington-on-Hudson.

Walker, 51, died unexpectedly at Villa Lewaro on May 25, 1919, from hypertension. At the time of her death, Madam C. J. Walker's net worth was reportedly between $500,000 and $1,000,000. She was the richest woman of African American descent in the nation.

Her early experiences taught us that we are more capable than we even know. She faced her health crisis head-on and made every effort to control it by trying with commercial and homemade hair care solutions until she found the cure that worked best for her.

She then decided to start selling her products in an effort to help other sufferers dealing from the same condition. This indicates how managing our own issues can help us.

A true testament to a human's strength, C.J. Walker refused to be overcome by her illness. Success doesn’t sprout from nothing, nor does it occur because of luck. True success is enduring despite the challenges.


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