Madam C. J. Walker was the daughter of slaves, married at 14, a widow with a baby daughter at 20. But, by the time that she was 40, Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919) was making as much money as a white corporate executive, thanks to her popular hair-care products for black women and her brilliance at marketing them. She created a workforce of sales agents that gave African American women job options other than being washerwomen or domestics. As her prominence and wealth increased, she became a generous benefactor of black educational institutions, and such a staunch supporter of the anti-lynching movement that the State Department labeled her a "race agitator" and denied her a passport in 1919. Yet, she had plenty of time for fun, too; she built a lavish mansion (near John D. Rockefeller's) in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, and her daughter Lelia entertained the Harlem Renaissance elite in a spectacular Manhattan townhouse that was renovated with revenues from the company's New York branch.
Madam C. J. Walker as she chose to call herself after marrying Charles J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to former slaves. She was orphaned at age 7 when her parents died in a yellow fever epidemic. As a child she picked cotton and helped do laundry for others. After the death of her parents she lived with her sister and brother-in-law, Willie. At 14 she married Moses McWilliams "to get a home of my own." Three years later she had a baby girl, Lelia, and two years later she was widowed. She was a very driven person who wanted to provide well for herself and young daughter. As a child she had never been educated, so she worked during the day and went to school at night. She even saved enough money to send her daughter to college. All this before she founded her company.
But it was a difficult time for blacks and it wasn’t until Sarah had a dream in which a man gave her a secret formula for a hair care product that her life began to change for the better. Sarah had been experiencing hair loss herself and decided to try the formula. She found it worked wonderfully and tried it on family and friends. Everyone loved it. She began mixing her new product, Wonderful Hair Grower, in an attic and selling it door-to-door. Eventually she opened her own factory. Her daughter managed the company and Madame Walker traveled promoting and demonstrating her products.
Madam Walker had always wanted to help others and now she had the money to do so. Her employees, mostly black women, received better pay and were treated with dignity and offered opportunities for advancement. She gave money to Mary Bethune’s school, the NAACP, many black writers and artists, churches, YMCA’s, and various charities.
At only 51 years of age, on May 25, 1919, Madam C. J. Walker went into a coma and died of complications from high blood pressure. She was mourned by thousands.
Madame C.J. Walker's House
Irvington-on-the-Hudson, New York, ca. 1987.