Madam CJ Walker was the first African American woman to become a self-made millionaire through developing revolutionary hair care products for black people. In addition to her business, Walker was tireless activist and philanthropist for the African American community in America.

Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on 23 December 1867 on a Louisiana cotton plantation. One of five children, she was was orphaned at seven years old, married at fourteen and widowed at twenty, with a daughter to support.

She took her daughter A’Leila to St Louis where her brothers had established themselves as barbers in the city. There, she began working as a washerwoman, and earned enough money to be able to send A’Leila to school in St Louis. It was in St Louis that she met her second husband Charles J. Walker who worked in newspaper sales.

During the 1890s, she suffered from alopecia and began to experiment with different treatments, including those by Annie Malone, another pioneering black entrepreneur. Hair loss was a common ailment among black women at the time, due to scalp diseases and products which damaged hair – not to mention stress and poor diet.

In 1905, Breedlove began working as an agent for entrepreneur Annie Turnbo’s company, Pope Malone’s Poro Co. She sold their product The Great Wonderful Hair Grower whilst also experimenting with her own products. During this period, Breedlove and her family relocated to Denver, and she began to use the name Madam CJ Walker for her own business.

The centre of her business became Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower a scalp conditioning and healing formula. Walker sold her products directly to black women. The philosophy behind the products was ‘cleanliness and loveliness’, which also had a political agenda behind it: advancing the status of African Americans in American society.

The products were hugely successful and in 1908, the company opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburg. The business relocated to Indianapolis in 1910 where they manufactured cosmetics and trained sales beauticians. Walker trained her saleswomen to use ‘The Walker Method’, a combination of scalp preparation, application of lotions, and the use of hot iron combs, resulting in smooth hair. These agents became known as ‘Walker Agents’ and were well known to black communities across America.

Walker went on to employ 40,000 African American men and women across the United States, Central America and Caribbean. And she was a generous employer –she established a nationwide network of employees, and offered bonuses and prizes to employees who contributed to the wider community through charitable work. She was a tireless champion of women, and ran training programs in the ‘Walker System’ for her employees. The charter of her company stated that only a woman could serve as its president. Throughout her life, she donated huge amounts of money to charity; founded educational scholarships for African Americans; supported many philanthropic organisations for the advancement of African Americans in America.

In 1913, Walker and her husband divorced. She moved to Harlem in 1916, and quickly became embedded within the political and cultural scene, visiting The White House to present a petition for anti-lynching legislation. That same year (1917), Walker’s ‘Hair Culturists Union of America’ organised one of the first national meetings of business women in America.

Madam CJ Walker died of kidney failure at the age of 51 on 25 May 1919. A’Leila inherited her Harlem townhouse which went on to become an epicentre of the Harlem Renaissance. When she died, Walker’s businesses was valued at more than $1 million, making her one of the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire.

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Sara Sherwood

Written by Sara Sherwood

Sara works in theatre and lives in London. She spends the majority of her time thinking about celebrity culture and the wives of 19th century politicians.

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