During the 20th century, the African-American community in the United States lacked the right to create their own businesses. But after the Proclamation of Emancipation in 1863, many doors were opened. That allowed African-American Sarah Breedlove, to go from being a simple laundress to become Madam C. J. Walker, an entrepreneur with a great fortune.

The story of Madam C. J. Walker

Owen Breedlove and his wife Minerva (Anderson) Breedlove were an African-American couple who lived in the United States during the 20th century. At a time when slavery was still in force. They had 5 children born under these circumstances: Alexander, Solomon, Owen Jr., James and Louvinia. However, shortly after the signing of the Proclamation of Emancipation, they had their first daughter born in freedom.

It was Sarah Breedlove, whose date of birth was December 23, 1867. Near the town of Delta, in Louisiana. Despite not having suffered the hardships of slavery like her family, she suffered the loss of her parents at an early age. Her mother Minerva died in 1874. And her father died a short time later. Turning Sarah into an orphan at the age of 7. She then started living with her older sister Louvinia and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell.

Sarah Breedlove Portrait
Edited and colored portrait of Madam C. J. Walker circa 1900. Source: Madam Walker Family Archives

Early life

Life for little Sarah wasn’t easy at all. In 1877 she moved with her older sister and brother-in-law to the city of Vicksburg in Mississippi. With just 10 years, she had to do domestic work picking cotton. Either way, the sources indicate that she may have suffered abuse and oppression from her brother-in-law.

This, according to some biographers, made her marry a man named Moses McWilliams at the age of 14. Possibly to escape the oppressive work environment to which she was subjected. Later in 1885, she gave birth to her first daughter: A’Lelia. Unfortunately, her husband died 2 years later in 1887. She, now 20, and her daughter, only 2, moved to the city of St. Louis in Missouri.

There, 3 of her brothers had already established themselves as barbers. Trying to survive, she was able to find a job as a laundress. Earning just $1.50 a day. However, Sarah was determined to make money to send her daughter to a public school. Something that proved dificult but that she managed after all. Years later, she met the advertisement newspaper salesman Charles Joseph Walker, her future husband and marketing ally.

Madam C. J. Walker Hair Grower
A newspaper ad promoting a hair growth product by Madam C. J. Walker in 1915. Source: Convene

Entrepreneurship in beauty products

In the years following 1880, Sarah began to suffer from a very common disease in black people. It was a scalp disorder that caused her to develop dandruff and hair loss. Caused by various factors such as stress, a poor diet, infrequent washing and the use of harmful hair soaps. She learned about hair care through her brothers, who as we mentioned before, were barbers.

In 1905, Sarah was hired as a commissioner by Annie Malone, an African-American businesswoman. Who had already developed a prominent company of hair products for black women, later called Poro. The experience that Sarah obtained selling hair products allowed her to start developing her own. She started experimenting with home remedies and commercialized hair products.

With the help of a Denver pharmacist and after much trial and error, Sarah managed to create her own shampoo and healing hair ointment. Which she started promoting with the help of her husband Charles. It was then that he encouraged her to use a more recognizable pseudonym: Madam C. J. Walker. And that’s when she founded Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, her own hair products company.

Villa Lewaro
Employees and agents of the company of Madam C. J. Walker, meeting at her residence in Villa Lewaro in August 1924. Source: Madam Walker Family Archives

Growth, maturity and death

Madam C. J. Walker and her husband began traveling to different parts of the United States to sell the brand. She understood the importance of advertising and learned about marketing and promotion through her husband. In addition to promoting her products, she began hiring and training thousands of African-American women to sell her products door-to-door.

In short, multilevel marketing helped her become successful. In 1908, Walker opened a factory and beauty school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And sooner than later her business started producing a lot of money. Her income would now amount to millions of dollars. Sarah and her husband were great promoters of the “Walker Method”, which consisted in the use and application of her products.

The “Walker Agents” would end up being known in the black communities of the United States. And they were individuals (especially black women) who were trained in cosmetology and product sales. Walker even traveled through Latin America promoting and finding sellers for her products. She was a philanthropist and a political and social activist. And her name became well known in her country.

She died on May 25, 1919. And by then, her company was valued at more than one million dollars and her estimated fortune between $600,000 and $700,000. Approximately $8 million currently. Walker was considered the first richest African-American woman in the United States. And perhaps the first self-made millionaire woman in this country. Becoming an African-American icon of women’s empowerment.

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Pursue your dreams as Madam C. J. Walker!