Women Who Dared

madam cj walker, first female millionaire, first african american millionaire

Happy Birthday, Madam C.J. Walker, the First African-American Female Millionaire

December 23, 2009
by Jen O'Neill
Although she never finished school, Madam C.J. Walker’s business acumen paved her rags-to-riches story. She stated, “If I accomplished anything in life, it was because I have been willing to work hard.” Considered the wealthiest African-American woman of her time, she’s called the “original Oprah Winfrey”; she used her position to oppose racial discrimination, and support civic, educational and social institutions for African Americans.

Madam C.J. Walker's Early Days

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Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana plantation as on Dec. 23, 1867, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed her parents. Her parents were sharecroppers who died from yellow fever when she was 6 years old, and she moved to Vicksburg, Miss., to live with her sister and perform household work. At the age of 14, she married Moses McWilliams and gave birth to daughter Lelia three years later; her husband died when she was 20. Fearful that she would not be able to provide for her daughter, the pair moved to St. Louis where she sought steady work as a laundress and domestic helper. With her hard-earned money, she was able to send her daughter to Knoxville College, providing her with the education that Walker herself had never had.

Walker's Notable Accomplishments

Walker was 37 years old when her hair began falling out. She eventually made a mixture in her own bathtub that actually worked to restore her hair, using a formula that she later claimed was given to her in a dream. Certain her invention would do well, she left St. Louis with only $1.50 in her pocket and headed to Denver, Colo. She sold her “miracle” product both locally and across the country.
Just as her business began to boom, she married Charles Joseph Walker in 1906, and began calling herself Madam C.J. Walker, using “Madam” rather than “Mrs.” to add a touch of class to her product’s name, “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.”

Against her husband’s advice, she and her daughter moved to Pittsburgh and opened Lelia College, which offered courses in hair care. The duo also trained African-American women to be their sales agents for a variety of hair and beauty products.

At a 1914 National Negro Business League convention, Walker stated, “I am not satisfied in making money for myself, I endeavor to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race.”

By 1916, Walker’s company reported yearly sales of $250,000, and Walker herself was the first African-American woman to become a millionaire in recorded history.

Madam C.J. Walker’s official Web site provides a timeline of key events in her life, illustrated by photographs.

The Rest of the Story

According to Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge publication, Walker also pursued both social and political causes. She drew attention to the lives of downtrodden groups across the country, sought to end lynching and campaigned for African-American inclusion in post-World War I peace discussions.

Walker also worked tirelessly to help others with her money; she started a school in Africa, and made donations to African-American organizations. Despite her prosperity, she still faced discrimination. On one occasion, she paid two times the amount that a white customer paid for a movie ticket. She sued the theater and also vowed to build her own. The Walker Building opened eight years after her death, and the Madame Walker Theatre Center is still thriving today in Indianapolis.

Walker’s busy lifestyle led to her death from hypertension on May 25, 1919. Her daughter A’Lelia Walker Robinson took over her thriving business, and became an important social figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, has written her ancestor’s biography, “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.
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