As the end of Reconstruction ushered in a volatile period in which former Confederate states instituted laws that severely restricted the upward mobility of African Americans, life for Black people largely remained just as harsh as it was during slavery. Black residents along the Mississippi River began to flee the South in the late 19th century, settling North for better opportunities. Among those making the journey was an entrepreneur who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker. Walker not only worked her way to becoming a self-made millionaire, she also became a staunch advocate for Black women.
Walker, who was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, where her parents had been enslaved, was orphaned at age 7, and worked in cotton fields near Vicksburg, Mississippi, living with her older sister. To escape her abusive brother-in-law, Walker married at age 14, and gave birth to her only daughter, A’Lelia, in 1885, before she was widowed just two years later. But returning to live with her sister and brother-in-law was not an option, so Walker and A’Lelia moved to St. Louis where Walker’s older brothers had migrated, establishing themselves as barbers.
Walker Finds Mentors, Support at Church
Walker, who had little formal education and worked as a washer woman, found a community of Black women at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Louis.
“At St. Paul A.M.E. Church, there were women who were educated schoolteachers and others who were leaders in the community who looked for women, like Sarah Breedlove, to encourage them in whatever way they could,” says A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great granddaughter and author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.
Walker, who joined the choir, was embraced and mentored by the church women who were active in missionary society and members of the National Association of Colored Women.
“She was able to see an example of what life would be like as something other than a washer woman,” says Bundles. “And those women began to give her a vision of herself, and that was a part of what propelled her.”
During the 1890s, Walker developed a scalp ailment that led to severe hair loss, a common occurrence, mainly due to a lack of indoor plumbing, which made hair-washing infrequent, says Bundles. With her brothers’ haircare knowledge, Walker started experimenting with homemade ointments and store-bought products from Annie Turnbo Malone, a Black entrepreneur with a successful haircare line. Walker, then remarried to a man who abused her, fled St. Louis for Denver in 1905 to live with a sister-in-law and work as a sales agent for Poro, Malone’s company.
Walker Develops Own Hair Product
In Denver, Walker became active in another A.M.E. church, selling Poro products to Black women, while also working as a cook for the owner of a large pharmacy. With his pharmaceutical suggestions, coupled with the knowledge she gained from her brothers and working as a Poro agent, Walker developed her own product.
She'd also married her third husband Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper man, and founded her business the Madam C.J. Walker Company. Leaving Poro, she delved into her work.
With a vision of having a haircare empire, Walker traveled throughout the South and Southeast with her product, “Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower,” a scalp conditioning and healing formula, selling door-to-door to Black women and giving demos at churches.
As business boomed, Walker created opportunities for other Black women, hiring them as sales agents and devising strategies for them to increase their profits. With her husband’s marketing skills, Walker also advertised in several Black newspapers, announcing when she’d be in town selling, and published testimonies about her product.
According to Bundles, some of the ads said: “You have made it possible for a Black woman to make more money in a day selling your products than she could get a month working in somebody's kitchen,” or “Before I started using Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower, my hair was in eighth of an inch long and now it's down my back.”
As Walker’s fortune increased, she became a philanthropist, supporting schools, the arts and civil rights organizations, as well as providing wealth-building opportunities for her agents.
“She has entered the business world, not for herself alone, but for the good of Black people, and specifically, the good of Black women,” says Erica Ball, a professor at Occidental College and author of Madam C.J. Walker and the Making of an American Icon. “She really does offer working-class and middle-class African American women a form of independent employment. They're going from one woman's house to another or doing hair together in groups and it's an opportunity to become community-oriented entrepreneurs.”
But Walker’s dream of owning an empire was bigger than her husband’s, and they divorced. Walker settled in 1910 in Indianapolis, a manufacturing-friendly city and a major transportation hub, where she headquartered her business and built a factory, in addition to expanding her salons and training schools into other cities.
“She provides employment for thousands of women,” says Bundles. Walker famously told her agents, “I want you to understand that as Walker agents, your first duty is to humanity. I want others to look at us and realize that we care not just about ourselves, but about others.”
“When we think of philanthropy, we think of it as someone with extraordinary wealth who gives back or hands out donations to those who are beneath them in the economic hierarchy,” says Ball. “But there's this older Black tradition of community-building and Madam Walker is part of that tradition. She's learned about philanthropy from her peers. She has been the beneficiary of these kinds of Black community organizations when she was washing clothes for white women.”
In 1916, Walker moved to New York, where she already had a storied Harlem townhouse, and built Villa Lewaro, a mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, designed by Black architect Vertner Tandy. She dedicated herself to anti-lynching activism, donating $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund and joining Harlem leaders to petition Washington politicians for anti-lynching legislation after the East St. Louis Riot of 1917, where more than three dozen African Americans were killed by a white mob.
Walker passed away of complications due to hypertension in 1919. At the time of her death she was worth more than one million dollars, says Bundles.
Walker’s hair products continued to be sold in drugstores for decades after her death, followed by a period of company dormancy before the line was relaunched as MADAM by Madam C.J. Walker in 2022.