Happy Black History Month! Every February, we dedicate this month to celebrating the many contributions of the African American community to our society. Being in the financial services industry, we at Vanderbilt are continuously inspired by Black and Brown entrepreneurs that have overcome extreme challenges to achieve greatness.
Madam C.J. Walker is recorded as the first self-made female millionaire in United States history. Read on to learn more about her story!
Sarah Breedlove was born on December 23, 1867, in Louisiana. Sarah’s parents were recently freed slaves, with Sarah being the first of their children born free. Sarah was orphaned at only seven years old, and was sent to live in Mississippi with her sister, where she worked as a domestic servant.
In 1882, Sarah married a man named Moses McWilliams; she gave birth to their daughter, A’Lelia three years later. Moses died in 1887, and Sarah later married Charles Joseph Walker.
Sarah and A’Lelia moved to St. Louis in 1888 to be closer to Sarah’s brothers, who were barbers. Sarah began to suffer from various scalp problems such as dandruff and balding. These issues were common for American women during this time due to the lack of indoor plumbing.
In an attempt to resolve her hair loss, Sarah took an interest in hair care and chemistry. Soon Sarah started working for Annie Malone, an African American hair care and cosmetics entrepreneur.
Sarah eventually took everything she learned from her previous jobs, her barber brothers, and Annie Malone, and began creating her own products. Her scalp treatment was particularly successful. She moved to Denver in 1905 and started her own business. Her husband Charles helped with marketing; this is when she decided to go by the catchier name of Madam C.J. Walker for business purposes. She called her selling method the “Walker Method,” which involved going door to door to personally show customers products.
Walker opened beauty parlors in Pittsburgh and New York City before establishing the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis, where she also built a factory and a beauty school. The company trained over 20,000 women as sales agents who helped promote the company’s brand throughout the US.
Madam C.J. Walker used her increasing fame and wealth to become an activist. She was an executive committee member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), gave lectures at political events, and even once spoke against lynching at the White House.
As a philanthropist, Walker donated to many African American churches, schools, and universities. She was also the largest individual contributor to the preservation of Frederick Douglass’s house in Washington D.C.
Madam C.J. Walker died in 1919 from kidney failure and hypertension. She was 51 years old. Two-thirds of her estate was left to charity, with the rest going to A’Lelia Walker, who also took over her mother’s company.
Walker’s life has been honored in many media forms, the most recent being the Netflix series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker starring Octavia Spencer. Companies Sundial Brands and Sephora also honored Walker’s legacy by creating a collaborative beauty line named after Walker in 2016. Her mansion in Irvington, New York was named a national historic landmark in 1976.