Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, near Delta, Louisiana. After suffering from a scalp ailment that resulted in her own hair loss,
“I want the great masses of my people to take a greater pride in their personal appearance and to give their hair proper attention.”
she invented a line of African-American hair care products in 1905. She promoted her products by traveling about the country giving lecture-demonstrations and eventually established Madame C.J. Walker Laboratories to manufacture cosmetics and train sales beauticians. Her savvy business acumen led her to become the first female self-made millionaire in the United States who donated the largest amount of money by an African-American toward the construction of an Indianapolis YMCA in 1913. She was rivaled only by the countless philanthropic endeavors for which she is also known.
Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana. Her parents, Owen and Minerva, were recently freed slaves, and Sarah, who was their fifth child, was the first in her family to be free-born. Minerva Breedlove died in 1874 and Owen passed away the following year, both due to unknown causes, and Sarah became an orphan at the age of 7. After her parents’ passing, Sarah was sent to live with her sister, Louvinia, and her brother-in-law. The three moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1877, where Sarah picked cotton and was likely employed doing household work, although no documentation exists verifying her employment at the time.
At age 14, to escape both her oppressive working environment and the frequent mistreatment she endured at the hands of her brother-in-law, Sarah married a man named Moses McWilliams. On June 6, 1885, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, A’Leila. When Moses died two years later, Sarah and A’Lelia moved to St. Louis, where Sarah’s brothers had established themselves as barbers. There, Sarah found work as a washerwoman, earning $1.50 a day—enough to send her daughter to the city’s public schools. She also attended public night school whenever she could. While in St. Louis, Breedlove met her second husband Charles J. Walker, who worked in advertising and would later help promote her hair care business.
During the 1890s, Sarah Breedlove developed a scalp disorder that caused her to lose much of her hair, and she began to experiment with both home remedies and store-bought hair care treatments in an attempt to improve her condition. In 1905, Breedlove was hired as a commission agent by Annie Turnbo Malone—a successful, black, hair care product entrepreneur—and she moved to Denver, Colorado. While there, Breedlove’s husband Charles helped her create advertisements for a hair care treatment for African Americans that she was perfecting. Her husband also encouraged her to use the more recognizable name “Madam C.J. Walker,” by which she was thereafter known.
In 1907, Walker and her husband traveled around the South and Southeast promoting her products and giving lecture demonstrations of her “Walker Method”—involving her own formula for pomade, brushing and the use of heated combs.