Walker, Sarah Breedlove

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Sarah Breedlove Walker (18671919) was one of the first American women to become a millionaire, and she ran the largest business owned by an African American at the time. She made a prosperous business out of selling her self-made hair care products for African American women.

Walker was born December 23, 1867. Her father was a poor sharecropper, and former slave, in Delta, Louisiana. She was orphaned at the age of six and was thereafter raised by an older sister. She received very little formal education and at the age of 10 she began supporting herself. At 14 she married Moses McWilliams and in 1885 they had a daughter. Two years later her husband died and Walker was left a widow with a young child to support. She moved her family to St. Louis, Missouri, where she had relatives. There she worked as a hotel washerwoman for 18 years.

Around 1904 Walker began to suffer from a scalp ailment called alopecia, which causes hair loss. At first she tried existing hair products to relieve her problem, before beginning to develop her own remedies. She started creating scalp treatments, then developed hair straighteners; next she began modifying existing hair techniques and tools until she developed the "Walker Method" of hair care. In 1906 Walker moved to Denver, Colorado, and married newspaperman Charles Joseph Walker. It was there that she founded the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She expanded her line of products to include hair growing tonic, strengtheners, toiletries, fragrances, and facial treatments.

In addition to expanding her product line, Walker developed new marketing techniques. At first she sold her products door to door by herself. Later she hired and trained other women to be "Walker Agents" and eventually she added a huge mail order department to her business. She also opened a beauty school that taught the Walker Method of hair straightening and hair growing. The business grew rapidly and in 1908 she opened a second office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Then in 1910 she opened her first factory in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Sarah Walker was also a social leader among the African American middle class. She was known as a good employer who sponsored philanthropic and educational projects initiated by her employees. She founded Lelia College, a hair care laboratory, and a chain of beauty salons in Harlem. She contributed generously to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and aided several local charities. She established scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute, Bethune-Cookman College, and Palmer Memorial Institute. In addition she supported black chapters of the Young Womens Christian Association (YWCA) and orphanages.

By 1917 the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was the largest African American-owned business in the United States employing about 3,000 workers. Sarah Walker was one of the first American women to become an independent millionaire. She died in New York City on May 25, 1919.

See also: Mary McLeod Bethune, Barbara Proctor


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Vare, Ethlie Ann, and Gret Ptacek. Mothers of Invention from the Bra to the Bomb: Forgotten Women and Their Unforgettable Ideas. New York: Morrow, 1988.

i got my start by giving myself a start.

sarah breedlove walker

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