Rags to Riches Story: On Her Own Ground
Starting from the bottom, have you imagined yourself to be on top?
If you answered no, so did Madam C.J. Walker–America's First Female Self-made Millionaire.
Who would have thought that an orphan would become a millionaire?
Madam C.J. Walker contributed to defining the role of the self-made American entrepreneur in the twentieth century, continued establishing herself as a pioneer in the modern black hair-care and cosmetics industry, and eventually set standards for corporate and community giving in the African-American community.
Yes, you heard it right. To get on top, Madam Walker didn’t wait for opportunities to come.
Hair is a woman's crowning glory, and through hair care, she built and helped improve hair hygiene, especially for African-American women.
Beautiful hair instantly boosts one's self-esteem. When you have gorgeous hair, you feel on top of the world, but have you ever considered how much lousy hair can ruin your day?
Let’s dive into the history of her humble beginnings.
Early Life of Madam C.J. Walker
Before there was an Ursula Burns there was a Madam C.J. Walker. But before she acquired the Madam C.J. Walker name, she was born with the name Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867. She grew up close to Delta, Louisiana, on a cotton plantation.
Generally of European descent, Robert W. Burney owned Madison Parish plantations and enslaved her older siblings.
As the fifth child of Owen Breedlove and Minerva Anderson-Breedlove, Sarah was the first in her family to be born free after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Her parents were enslaved, and both persevered to be freed.
Freedom was granted in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation that ended Black slavery. What is Emancipation Proclamation?
On January 1, 1863, US President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people in the Confederate states who rebelled against the Union.
A cholera epidemic spread and travelled with river passengers up the Mississippi in 1873, reaching Tennessee and related areas. Likely due to Cholera, Minerva passed away in 1874.
Sarah’s father, Owen, remarried but followed his first wife the following year, leaving Sarah as an orphan at age seven.
Following her parents' death at age 10, Sarah was sent to live with her sister, Louvenia, and Jesse Powell, her brother-in-law.
In 1877, Louvenia, Jesse Powell, and Sarah moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Sarah picked cotton and became a domestic servant.
Walker’s Marriages and Family
Her oppressive work environment and frequent mistreatment by her brother-in-law prompted Sarah to marry Moses McWilliams at age 14.
After three years, Sarah gave birth to her first child, Lelia, on June 6, 1885. Moses died two years later, Sarah became a widow at 20, and Lelia was two. In 1894, Sarah remarried, but the marriage to John Davis was brief and ended in 1903.
In St. Louis, Missouri, Sarah met Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman. In January 1906, Charles J. Walker married Sarah.
They divorced in 1912, and Charles died in 1926. Lelia McWilliams took her stepfather's family name and became known as A'Lelia Walker.
Early Career and Education of Madam C.J. Walker
During her early years, Sarah attended church and went to Sunday school to learn literacy, but she only had three months of formal education.
Having lived in St. Louis since 1888, Sarah and her young daughter Lelia settled there, where her brothers had established themselves as barbers. Sarah earned $1.50 a day working as a washerwoman.
Sarah was persistent and determined to make enough to send her daughter to the city's public schools and provide formal education for herself. Sarah took education as something valuable, so during her time as a washerwoman, she also attended public night school.
Sarah was a member of the National Association of Colored Women. In the 1880s, she observed the women at her church and yearned to be educated. She started singing at the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Sarah lived in a time when ragtime was developing and emerging in the community. In the 19th century's last decade, honky-tonk pianists played ragtime along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
Its rhythms were inspired by minstrel songs, African American banjo styles, and the cakewalk's syncopated (off-beat) dance rhythms. It also features elements of European music.
Ragtime is a piece of rhythmically syncopated music that was a precursor to jazz and a dominant style of American popular music from about 1899 to 1917.
In the generation of the Roaring 20s, things were starting to modernize, and it was a decade of profound social changes.
Infographics: plumbing, central heating, and electricity in America in the 1800
Plumbing, Central Heating and Electricity in the 1800s Infographics
First Venture of Madam C.J. Walker
With the roaring economy of the 1920s, Sarah didn't start thinking about business until she started losing her hair. Just as Sarah’s self-confidence improved, her scalp became infected, and she became nearly bald.
Sarah Breedlove or Madam C.J. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, detailed in the book of haircare entrepreneur’s biography titled On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, A’Lelia Bundles related in her book that in the late 19th century, hair loss was a common problem among women because of diet, scalp diseases, hygienic issues, and hair products that caused damage.
Bundles described, “Hygiene was very different during that era, for everybody. As most Americans did not have indoor plumbing or central heating, they rarely bathed and did not wash their hair much. Sarah had some experience with hair care because her brothers were barbers, but it was limited to shaving and trimming beards, which is very different from assisting women with scalp condition."
As Sarah became more involved in social clubs, she no longer wanted to cover her hair with head wraps, which signified her rural origins.
She was ashamed of her bald spots and matted hair, aspired to look like the black elite, and wished to have well-groomed locks.
While searching for a solution, she met Annie Turnbo Malone, a black hair-care entrepreneur who had moved to St. Louis to capitalize on the crowds attracted by the 1904 World's Fair.
Her specialties included scalp treatments and hair restoration, and she gave away free trial treatments to promote her products.
For black women, hairdressing was similar to barbering for men; it offered better wages than being a domestic servant or a washerwoman. The company hired Sarah as one of its first salespeople, and Malone later claimed that she solved Sarah's hair loss problem personally.
Sarah used Malone's products, among others, until she developed and invented her own.
She sought treatment but immediately recognized that pills would not help. With nowhere else to turn, Sarah experimented with many ingredients and devised a secret formula to stimulate hair growth.
She tried a variety of home cures and store-bought hair care products, hoping to improve her situation. She quickly understood that preparing the components yourself was the best option.
Around this time, she also noticed many other black women had the same problem. Sarah’s secret formula included sulfur and frequent hair and scalp cleansing.
Sarah didn’t think of hair care products as a business not until she needed a solution for her problem and saw that there was a significant need in the market, too. This realization led Sarah to sell her products door-to-door in black neighborhoods in St. Louis.
In 1905 Sarah married Charles J. Walker, and with her business becoming more successful, Sarah decided to rebrand herself and adopt a new name – Madam C.J. Walker.
Adopting the title of Madam also gave Sarah Walker an edge at a time when black women were routinely mocked in public spaces, just as she started running her own business separate from Malone's.
She relocated to Denver, Colorado, and began working for and selling things for Annie Malone, who solicited her assistance after noting her ability to sell. She began designing her line and establishing her headquarters while working for Malone.
Walker began offering her own blend of ingredients, a tweaked version of Malone’s sulfur recipe, and her customers stood by it. When it came to her finding, Walker knew she had hit gold.
She started a brand and differentiated her goods from those made by cosmetic companies by marketing only to the Black community and promising that her products would treat Black hair. She used a personalized door-to-door strategy to sell her handcrafted products directly to black women.
In her first line of goods, she combined petroleum jelly and sulfur, prompting a breach between her and Malone after she accused her of stealing her ingredients, even though sulfur for hair growth has been used for centuries.
Malone, back in Indianapolis, felt betrayed and openly criticized Walker's enterprise in a local Denver newspaper.
“That’s when their lifelong feud began, because Malone said, ‘You stole my formula,'” Bundles explains. "There weren't many products accessible at the time, but this blend of petrolatum and sulfur had been around for a hundred years, according to medical publications." Because it's so similar to Cuticura Soap's original formula, neither of these women produced it. Around the same period, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, and others began, and they all had secret formulas.' Madam Walker fell right in line because that was part of the mystique."
Despite the feud between Walker and Malone, she continued to push through with the business involving her family members in broadening the tentacles of her business.
Following her split from Malone, she began traveling and teaching about her products and hair care, gaining a large following.
Charles J. Walker being an advertiser, was a great help to Sarah and helped promote and expand her hair care business–the name of her eventual empire.
Thanks to his connections, she gained exposure through the black press, which carefully covered her talks and products. While she and her husband toured the southern and eastern United States to expand their business in 1906, Walker put her daughter, A’Lelia, in charge of the mail-order operation in Denver.
In 1908, Walker and her husband moved to Pittsburgh, where they started a beauty parlor and opened a college to train hair culturists. An advocate for black women's economic empowerment, Walker, set up the Walker System for her network of licensed sales representatives who earned good commissions.
A'Lelia moved to Pittsburgh after Walker closed the business in Denver in 1907. The day-to-day operations in Pittsburgh were handled by A'Lelia when Walker established a new base in Indianapolis in 1910.
A’Lelia also convinced her mother to open an office and beauty salon in New York City's growing Harlem neighborhood in 1913, which grew to become a center of African-American culture.
Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company
Madam Walker moved her business to Indianapolis in 1910, establishing the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company and creating approximately twenty hair and skincare products. She first bought a house and factory at 640 North West Street.
She later built a factory, a hair salon, and a beauty school to train her sales agents, and she made a laboratory to conduct research.
Additionally, she recruited a team of individuals to assist in managing the company's growth, including Robert Lee Brokenburr, Freeman Ransom, Alice Kelly, and Marjorie Joyner. Long before Mary Kay Cosmetics existed, the Walker Agents became well-known in black communities across the United States.
Walker’s company employed many women in key management and staff positions.
Through her products, Walker's method of grooming was intended to promote hair growth while also nourishing the scalp.
The system involved shampooing, applying a pomade that boosted hair growth, intense brushing, and using iron combs on hair to make them supple and luxurious.
There were several competitors for Walker's product line. A similar formulation was produced in Europe and manufactured by other companies in the United States, notably Annie Turnbo Malone's Poro System, from which she got her original recipe, and Sarah Spencer Washington's Apex System.
During the peak of Walker's career, between 1911 and 1919, her company employed several thousand sales agents to sell its products. The company claimed to have trained more than 20,000 women by 1917.
Walker also taught other black women how to budget, start their businesses, and become financially independent, in addition to training them in sales and grooming.
In 1917, Walker organized her sales agents into state and local clubs, taking inspiration from the National Association of Colored Women model.
As a result, the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents (the predecessor of the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culturists Union of America) was formed.
The organization's first conference took place in Philadelphia in 1917 with 200 participants. It is thought that the meeting was one of the first national gatherings of women entrepreneurs discussing business and commerce.
Walker presented prizes during the convention to women who had recruited and brought in the newest sales agents and sold the most products. A special award was also given to those who made the most remarkable contributions to local charities.
By the late 1920s, Walker's name became even more widely known as the company's business market grew outside the United States to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica even after Walker's death.
Activism and Philanthropy of Madam C.J. Walker
During an annual National Negro Business League (NNBL) meeting in 1912, Walker delivered a speech from the convention floor.
But what did the NNBL do?
And who founded the National Negro Business League and why?
This video shares the black entrepreneurship in the 1900s and what National Negro Business League is all about.
As Walker's fame and wealth grew, her views became more vocal. Next year, she addressed convention attendees as a keynote speaker.
Walker became a part of the Harlem Renaissance's overall culture, including charity. She established college and university scholarships, collected money for the elderly, and backed the NAACP and the National Conference on Lynching. She also made the most significant contribution by an African American to developing an Indianapolis YMCA.
Walker pledged $1,000 to the building fund for the Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis' black community and contributed scholarship money to the Tuskegee Institute. Among its benefactors were:
- Flanner House and the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Indianapolis
- Industrial School for Negro Girls and Mary McLeod Bethune's Daytona Education in Daytona Beach, Florida (which later became Bethune-Cookman University)
- The Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina
- the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Georgia
Walker was also a cultural and arts benefactor.
Walker's daughter, A'Lelia, relocated to a new townhouse in Harlem in 1913, and Walker followed her there in 1916, leaving her company's day-to-day operations to her Indianapolis management team.
Walker commissioned Vertner Tandy, the city's first licensed black architect, and a founding Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity member, to construct her home in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, in 1917. Walker designed Villa Lewaro, a $250,000 construction building project, to serve as a gathering place for community leaders and to encourage other aspiring African Americans to achieve their goals.
In May 1918, she moved into the house and had an opening ceremony to honor Emmett Jay Scott, the US Department of War's Assistant Secretary for Negro Affairs. Many of the greats of the Harlem Renaissance era assembled at the house. In 1976, it was listed as a National Historic Landmark.
After moving to New York, Walker became increasingly interested in politics. She spoke at conferences sponsored by strong black institutions about political, economic, and social concerns.
W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Booker T. Washington were among her acquaintances and associates. Walker was a strong supporter of the Circle For Negro War Relief during World War I, and she campaigned to develop a training center for black army officers.
Madam Walker joined the New York branch executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1917, which was responsible for organizing the Silent Protest Parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
More than 8,000 African Americans attended the public march to protest in East Saint Louis, which left 39 African Americans dead. She was also a member of the Harlem YWCA's Committee of Management from 1917 until her death, influencing the organization's establishment of beauty training for young women.
Madam C.J. Walker’s Honors
Her commercial profits greatly impacted Walker's contributions to her political and humanitarian interests. Walker was honored by the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC) for helping preserve Frederick Douglass's Anacostia house, the most considerable individual contribution.
Walker donated $5,000 (about $77,700 in 2019) to the NAACP's anti-lynching fund before her death in 1919. It was the most significant contribution the NAACP had ever received from one individual at the time. Walker left over $100,000 to orphanages, institutions, and people and dedicated two-thirds of her estate's future net revenues to charity in her will.
Madam C.J. Walker’s Death
At 51, Madam C.J. Walker died of renal failure and hypertension complications on May 25, 1919. Walker's remains are buried in the Bronx, New York City's Woodlawn Cemetery.
Madam C.J. Walker Legacy
Walker's net worth was estimated to be between $500,000 and $1,000,000 at the time of her death. She was America's richest African-American woman.
Her business remained after Walker’s death in 1919. Who is president of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company now? The company was succeeded by Madam Walker’s daughter, A'Lelia Walker, who became the president of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.
Madam C.J. Walker’s $250,000 house on Hudson's banks in Irvington was also built that year, according to her obituary.
The Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis houses and preserves Walker's personal papers. Her legacy lives on at Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York, and the Madame Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis, both of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Following A'Lelia Walker's death in 1932, Villa Lewaro was sold to the Companions of the Forest in America, a fraternal organization. In 1979, the home was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The privately-held property has been named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In December 1927, the Walker Manufacturing Company headquarters building in Indianapolis had renamed the Madame Walker Theatre Center. It housed the company's headquarters and manufacturing plant, a theater, beauty school, hair salon and barbershop, cafeteria, drugstore, and community ballroom. In 1980, the structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Walker has a museum in Atlanta and the historic radio station WERD. The museum, which opened in 2004, is housed in the old Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Shoppe.
Regina Taylor, a writer and director, created The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove in 2006, chronicling Walker's ups and downs. The drama had its world debut at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Actress L. Scott Caldwell performed Walker.
As of March 2020, Sundial Brands announced the revival of Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture sold at Sephora. In addition to its 2,700 stores in 35 countries worldwide, it operates over 500 stores across the Americas. Sephora employs over 1,600 people across five delivery locations in four states: Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, and Utah.
Other feisty business and inventors to take note of their brilliance are Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, Margaret Knight, a brilliant inventor and engineer, and Marjorie Merriweather Post, 20th century’s gritty female mogul.
Walker Legacy in TV Series
In 2020, actress Octavia Spencer agreed to play Walker in a TV series based on A'Lelia Bundles' memoir On Her Own Ground, written by Walker's great-great-granddaughter.
The series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker received mixed reviews due to the storyline's inconsistencies, making it more of a fictional work than a historical biography.
Audiences were outraged by the portrayal of Annie Malone as Addie Monroe, another black female self-made millionaire as an antagonist, and Walker's daughter as a lesbian. In Netflix's Self-Made Suffers from Self-Inflicted Wounds, biographer A'Lelia Bundles writes on the behind-the-scenes experience of making Self Made.
Walker Legacy in Documentary
Stanley Nelson, the grandson of Freeman B. Ransom, produced the 1987 documentary, Two Dollars and a Dream, the first film to cover the life of Madam Walker. Freeman B. Ransom is Madam Walker's attorney and the general manager of Walker Company in the 1980s. As Ransom’s grandson, Nelson gained access to original Walker corporate papers. Nelson also had a chance to interview former Walker Company workers.
Tributes to Madam C.J. Walker
Walker has been honored with some scholarships and awards:
- The chapter on the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Oakland/Bay Area presents the Madam C. J. Walker Business and Community Recognition Award. Walker is honored at an annual luncheon in the community, and outstanding women are awarded scholarships.
- The Spirit Awards sponsor the Madame Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis. Since 2006, the yearly award has recognized national leaders in entrepreneurship, charity, civic engagement, and the arts as a memorial to Walker. The Madame C. J. Walker Heritage Award is granted to individuals, young entrepreneurs, and legacy prizes.
The National Women's Hall of Fame honored Walker in 1993 in Seneca Falls, New York.
Walker was featured on a stamp issued by the United States Postal Service in 1998 as part of its "Black Heritage" series.
On May 12, 2018, she was posthumously given the IUPUI Chancellor's Medallion at the IUPUI Commencement Ceremony.
Madam C.J. Walker’s FAQs:
1. Who is Sarah Breedlove?
Before she acquired the Madam C.J. Walker name, she was born with the name Sarah Breedlove.
2. How did Sarah Breedlove become Madam C.J. Walker?
When Sarah Breedlove got married to Charles Joseph Walker, Sarah decided to rebrand herself and adopt a new name – Madam C.J. Walker.
3. What was Madam C.J. Walker’s early life?
She grew up close to Delta, Louisiana on a cotton plantation. At the age of 7, she became an orphan and lived with her older sister. She worked as a domestic servant and picked cotton.
4. Who was Madam C.J. Walker’s older sister?
Her older sister was Louvenia, wife of Jesse Powell. Her oppressive work environment and frequent mistreatment by her brother-in-law prompted Sarah to marry at age 14.
5. What was Madam C.J. Walker’s educational background?
During her early years, Madam C.J. Walker attended church and went to Sunday school to learn literacy, but she only had three months of formal education. But Madam C.J. Walker yearned good education for herself. When she was working as a washer woman, she attended public night school.
6. How many children did Madam C.J. Walker have?
Walker only had one, Lelia McWilliams later known as A’Lelia Walker, from her marriage with Moses McWilliams.
7. Who is Charles Joseph Walker?
Charles Joseph Walker is Madam Walker’s third husband and where Madam C.J. Walker’s moniker and the company’s name are based.
8. How many times did C.J. Walker get married?
Madam Walker married three times in her lifetime.
9. Did Madam C.J. Walker go to church?
In the 1880s, Sarah was an active member and sang at the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church.
10. Who is Annie Malone?
Annie Turnbo Malone was a black hair-care entrepreneur who had moved to St. Louis to capitalize on the crowds attracted by the 1904 World's Fair. Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Malone met while Walker was looking for a solution for her hair problems.
11. Did Annie Malone work with Madam C.J. Walker?
Annie Malone’s specialties included scalp treatments and hair restoration, and she gave away free trial treatments to promote her products. Malone’s company hired Walker as one of its first salespeople. Walker used Malone's products until she developed and invented her own.
12. What happened to Madame C.J. Walker's daughter?
After Walker’s death in 1919. The company was succeeded by Madam Walker’s daughter, A'Lelia Walker, who became the president of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company until her death in 1931.
13. Was Madam C.J. Walker a feminist?
One of the most remarkable aspects of Walker is that she created her own niche as a distinctly female feminist long before any paradigms were in place, and without any role model to follow.
14. What is the relation between Madam C.J. Walker and Ragtime?
Walker lived in a time when ragtime was developing and emerging in the community. In the 19th century's last decade, honky-tonk pianists played ragtime along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
15. Why is Madam C.J. Walker important in history?
Madam C.J. Walker was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and activist who grew up in poverty before becoming one of the richest African American women in history. Her position enabled her to advocate for black advancement and an end to lynching.
Key Takeaways: Madam C.J. Walker
If there was an Anna Bissell, the first CEO of America, there is also a Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire and is the epitome of the saying rags to riches.
Walker broke barriers racially and was the first female to enter a male-dominated industry successfully–entrepreneurship.
While Walker is known for her hard-earned fortune and financial skills, the students she had trained during her lifetime claimed how giving she was to others financially and in terms of opportunities.
For budding entrepreneurs who want to know how she went from poverty to riches, you can imitate Madam C.J. Walker by developing tenacity, faith in yourself, and patience.