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Madam C.J. Walker: From the Cottonfields to Building a Beauty Business Empire


Madam C.J. Walker, was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in a one-room cabin with a fireplace, a few windows, and a porch located on a cotton plantation on Delta, Louisiana. She would build a beauty empire employing 40,000 African American women and men in the US, Central America, and the Caribbean and found the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association in 1917.

Her parents, Owen and Minerva Breedlove remained on the plantation following the end of the civil war, working as sharecroppers, and selling the cotton to earn money. Following their death to yellow fever in 1874, Sarah Breedlove would leave Delta for Vicksburg, Mississippi to live with her sister, Louvenia, and brother-in-law, Willie Powell.

At 14 years old, she married Moses (Jeff) McWilliams and gave birth to their daughter, Lelia, later known as A’Lelia. He’d be killed within two years of her birth, possibly in a race riot in Greenswood, Mississippi. 

Seeking of a long-term solution to support herself and daughter with better earning opportunities, she and Lelia would board a steamboat St. Louis, Missouri where four brothers were barbers. At the time, St. Louis was the third largest city in the United States. She spent her days washing clothes and attended school at night.

From there, she moved to Denver, Colorado arriving July 1905. Having suffered with her hair and scalp, Madam C.J. Walker developed three products: Wonderful Hair Grower, Glossine (a light oil), and Vegetable Shampoo, and would sell her products door to door, offering free demonstrations. Renting a room in an attic, she perfected her formula.

The Walker Hair Care Method involved washing the customer’s hair with the Vegetable Shampoo, applying the Wonderful Hair Grower to their hair and scalp, followed by the Glossine, then pressing the client’s hair with a heated steel comb.

The line would also offer perfume, toothpaste, soap, power, and lipstick especially for black women.

On January 4, 1906, she married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper ad salesman and friend she’d made in St. Louis. The business would quickly reach a daily income of $10. Fearing that he was unable to see her full vision for the company, she went into business for herself… they would divorce in 1912.

She traveled across the United States by train, introducing her product to women and recruiting sales agents. Lelia, having finished college, would fulfill orders along with cousins.

In 1908, the two would move to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania arriving the summer of 1908, open a beauty parlor and start a training school, called Lelia College.

By 1910, she relocated to Indianapolis, Indiana, and establish a beauty school, a laboratory, and a factory where her products were developed. There she met a young black lawyer, Robert Lee Brokenburr. In 1911, he would help her legally establish Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She would hire another black lawyer, Freeman Briley Ransom, her secretary, Violet Davis Reynolds; Marjorie Joyner joined as national supervisor of the beauty schools and was inventor of a permanent waving machine.

During her life, Madam C.J. Walker became a philanthropist, donating money to Mary McLeod Bethune to help her with the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls (now Bethune-Cookman College) in Florida. She gave money to the NAACP, she backed struggling black artists and writers who shaped the Harlem Renaissance. She contributed to churches, cultural centers and YMCAs.

She worked towards ending the discrimination against black people. In 1917, she was part of a group that went to Washington, D.C. to persuade President Woodrow Wilson and Congress to make lynching and mob violence and federal crime.

In 1918, she purchased 4.5-acres estate in Irvington, not far from New York and hired black architect Vertner Woodson Tandy to design for her a 30-room mansion. It was called Villa Lewaro after the first two letters of each part of her daughter’s name. Included among her neighbors was oil tycoon John D. Rockerfeller.

She loved cars, clothes, jewelry, hosting parties, music, and held among her treasured possessions a grand piano, a harp, a ceiling high organ, and a Victrola (phonograph).

She died On May 25, 1919 at 51-years-old, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City where her tombstone reads Madam C.J. Walker. Prior to her death, she'd revised her will, gifting two-thirds of future net profits to charity, as well as thousands of dollars to various individuals and schools.

“It [perseverance] gave us the telegraph, telephone, and wireless. It gave the world an Abraham Lincoln, and to a race freedom.”

Works cited:

  • Colman, Penny. Madam C.J. Walker: Building a Business Empire. Millbrook Press, 1994.
  • Michals, Debra. “Madam C.J. Walker.” National Women's History Museum,
  • Stille, Darlene R. Madam C.J. Walker: Entrepreneur and Millionaire. Compass Point Books, 2007.

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