Walker, Madame C. J. 1867–1919

views updated May 18 2018

Madame C. J. Walker 18671919

Entrepreneur, philanthropist

At a Glance

Serving a New Market

Building an Empire

Became Philanthropist


I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted from there to the washtub. Then I was promoted to the cook kitchen, and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. With these words, Madame C. J. Walker introduced herself to the National Negro Business Leagues 1912 convention and summed up her life to that time. Five years later, through her hard work and business acumen, this daughter of former slaves owned and ran the largest black-owned company in the United States.

The Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company produced and distributed a line of hair and beauty preparations for black women, including conditioners to ease styling, stimulate hair growth, and cure common scalp ailments, as well as an improved metal comb for straightening curly hair. So successful was she at marketing her products that Madame Walker became the first female African American millionaire. Her self-made fortune allowed for a lavish personal lifestyle and extensive public philanthropic commitments, particularly to black educational institutions.

Walker was born Sarah Breed-love in 1867. Her parents, Owen and Minerva Breedlove, were former slaves who had chosen to remain as sharecroppers on the Burney family plantation near Delta, Louisiana. The family was poor, and both parents died by the time Sarah was seven. She was taken in by her older sister, Louvenia, and a few years later they moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Sarahs education was extremely limited, and she was subjected to the cruelty of Louvenias husband. To get away, she married a man named McWilliams when she was 14. In 1885 her daughter, Lelia, was born; two years later, McWilliams was killed, and the young widow moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where she worked as a washerwoman and domestic. Through hard work, she managed to see Lelia graduate from the St. Louis public schools and attend Knoxville College, a black private college in Tennessee.

Shortly after her arrival in St. Louis, Sarah began losing her hair. Like many black women of her era, she would often divide her hair into sections, tightly wrap string around these sections, and twist them in order to make her

At a Glance

Born Sarah Breedlove, December 23, 1867, in Delta, LA; professional name, Madame C. J. Walker; died May 25, 1919, lrvington-on-Hudson, NY; daughter of Owen and Minerva Breedlove (sharecroppers); married a man named McWilliams, c. 1881 (died, c. 1887); married Charles Joseph Walker (a newspaperman), 1906 (divorced); children: (first marriage) Lelia.

Washerwoman and domestic, 1887-1905; president and owner, Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, 1905-19.

Member: National Association of Colored Women.

Selected awards: Inducted into National Womens Hall of Fame, Seneca Falls, NY, 1993.

hair straighter when it was combed out. Unfortunately, this hair-care ritual created such a strain that it caused many women to lose their hair.

To keep her hair, Sarah tried every product she could find, but none worked. Desperate, she prayed to God to save her hair. He answered my prayer, she later told a reporter for the Kansas City Star in a story recounted in Ms. magazine. One night I had a dream, and in that dream a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind to begin to sell it.

Serving a New Market

Walker experimented with patent medicines and hair products already on the market, developing different formulas and products in her wash tubs for testing on herself, her family members, and friends. Realizing the commercial possibilities in the under-served market for black beauty products, she began selling her concoctions door-to-door in the local black community.

After perfecting her Wonderful Hair Grower in 1905, she moved to Denver, Colorado, to join her recently widowed sister-in-law and nieces. Other products followed, including Glossine hair oil, Temple Grower, and a Tetter Salve for psoriasis of the scalp. These products, used along with her re-designed steel hot comb with teeth spaced far apart for thick hair, allowed black women to straighten, press, and style their hair more easily.

Walkers beauty products complemented her belief that one of the ways black women could gain access to business careers and financial power was by looking more acceptable to members of the dominant mainstream white society. Using her preparations would not only help improve personal hygiene for many rural black women, but also enhance their personal self-esteem. I have always held myself out as a hair culturist. I grow hair, she once told a reporter whose story was later quoted in Ms. magazine. I want the great masses of my people to take a greater pride in their appearance and to give their hair proper attention.

Soon she had enough customers to quit working as a laundress and devote all her energy to her growing business. In 1906 she married Charles Joseph Walker, a Denver newspaperman. His journalistic background proved helpful in implementing advertising and promotional schemes for her products in various black publications, as well as through mail-order procedures. Though the marriage only lasted a few years, it provided a new professional name for herself and her companythe Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.

Leaving Lelia in charge of her burgeoning mail-order operations in Denver, Walker traveled throughout the South and East, selling her products and teaching her hair-care method. In 1908 she established a branch office and a school called Lelia College in Pittsburgh to train black hair stylists and beauticians in the Walker System of hair care and beauty culture. While Lelia managed the school and office, Walker logged thousands of miles on the road, introducing her preparations to black women everywhere she went.

Stopping in Indianapolis in 1910, she was so impressed by the citys central location and transportation facilities that she decided to make it her headquarters. That year she consolidated her operations by moving the Denver and Pittsburgh offices there and building a new factory to manufacture her hair solutions, facial creams, and related cosmetics. She also established a training center for her sales force, research and production laboratories, and another beauty school to train her hair culturists.

On one of her many trips Walker met a train porter, Freeman B. Ransom, who was a Columbia University law student working during his summer vacation. After he graduated, she hired him to run her Indianapolis operations, freeing Lelia to move to New York in 1913 to expand activities on the East Coast and open another Lelia College. Walker herself continued to travel and promote her beauty program.

Building an Empire

Walker was fast building an empire in the true tradition of American enterprisemanufacturing the products in her own plant, employing a nationwide sales force to sell them, and owning the beauty shops that used and promoted them. At every town she visited in her indefatigable travels, she made sure to meet the leading black business, religious, and civic leaders, knowing that if these influential citizens began using her products the rest of the populace would follow suit.

By 1917 the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company was the largest black-owned business in the country with annual revenues of approximately $500,000. Much of its success was built around the sales force thousands of black women known as Walker agents. Dressed in white blouses and long black skirts, they became familiar sights in black communities throughout the United States and the Caribbean. Walking door-to-door to demonstrate and sell Walker products, they easily outpaced their competitors in the newfound black beauty field.

Being a Walker agent or hair culturist was a rare career opportunity for black women in the rigidly segregated pre-World War I era. It enabled many to become financially independent, buy their own homes, and support their childrens educations. Walker herself considered it one of her greatest accomplishments, telling delegates to the National Negro Business League, as recounted in American History Illustrated: I have made it possible for many colored women to abandon the washtub for a more pleasant and profitable occupation. The girls and women of our race must not be afraid to take hold of business enterprise.

Once her agents were making money, Walker encouraged them to donate to charitable causes in their own communities. She shrewdly organized them into clubs for business, social, and philanthropic purposes, stimulating their activities and fostering prestige by offering cash prizes to the most generous clubs. Delegates from local clubs attended national conventions at regular intervals to learn new techniques and share business experiences.

Walker set a good example to her saleswomen by becoming the leading black philanthropist of her day. She contributed substantial sums to promote black education (particularly for women), encourage black businesses, support homes for the aged, and aid anti-lynching legislation. Some of her favorite causes were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Colored YMCA of Indianapolis, and the National Conference on Lynching.

Became Philanthropist

Walker befriended many famous black leaders of her era and generously supported their efforts, among them Booker T. Washingtons Tuskegee Institute, Mary McLeod Bethunes Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls, Lucy Laneys Haynes Institute, and Charlotte Hawkins Browns Palmer Memorial Institute. She also built a school for girls in West Africa and continued providing for it. When the National Association of Colored Women appealed to their membership for donations to pay off the mortgage of the late abolitionist Frederick Douglasss home, Walker made the largest contribution. At the groups 1918 convention, she proudly held the candle that burnt the mortgage papers.

Even with her generosity, Walker was able to lead a lavish lifestyle. Shrewd real estate investments complemented her self-made business fortune. A striking woman nearly six-feet tall, big boned, with brown skin and a broad face, she made heads turn by her presence whenever she entered a room. And her extravagant tastes only enhanced her public image. She dressed in the latest fashions, wore expensive jewelry, rode around in an electric car, was seen in the finer restaurants, owned townhouses in New York and Indianapolis and, befitting the first black female millionaire in the country, built a $250,000, 20-room, elegant Georgian mansion, Villa Lewarocomplete with gold piano and $60,000 pipe organin Irvington-on-Hudson.

By 1918 Walkers nonstop pace and lifetime of hard work had begun to take its toll. Despite orders from doctors to slow down to ease her high blood pressure, she continued to travel. During a business trip to St. Louis she collapsed and was transported back to her villa in a private railroad car. She died quietly of kidney failure resulting from hypertension in May of 1919 at the age of 52, leaving behind a prosperous company, extensive property, and a personal fortune in excess of $1 million. Summing up her life, the author of an editorial in Crisis said that Madame Walker revolutionized the personal habits and appearance of millions of human beings.

In her will, Walker bequeathed two-thirds of her estate to charitable and educational institutions, many of which she had supported during her lifetime. The remaining third was left to her daughter, now called ALelia, who succeeded her as company president. True to her beliefs, a provision in the will directed that the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company always have a woman president. In 1927 the Walker Building, planned by Madame Walker, was completed in Indianapolis to serve as company headquarters.



Epic Lives, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, Visible Ink Press, 1993.

Salley, Columbus, The Black 100: A Ranking of the Most lnfluential African Americans, Past and Present, Citadel Press, 1993.


American History Illustrated, March 1989, pp. 24-25.

Crisis, July 1919.

Essence, June 1983, pp. 84-86, 154-156.

Ms., July 1983, pp. 91-94.

New York Times, May 26, 1919.

James J. Podesta

Walker, Madame C. J.

views updated May 21 2018

Madame C. J. Walker

Born: December 23, 1867
Delta, Louisiana
Died: May 25, 1919
New York, New York

African American businesswoman

As a manufacturer of hair care products for African American women, Madame C. J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, became one of the first American women millionaires.

Struggling childhood

Madame C. J. Walker, named Sarah Breedlove at birth, was born December 23, 1867, in Delta, Louisiana, to Owen and Minerva Breedlove, both of whom were emancipated (freed) slaves and worked on a cotton plantation. At the age of six Sarah's parents died after the area was struck by yellow fever, a deadly disease oftentimes spread by mosquitoes. The young girl then moved to Vicksburg to live with her sister Louvinia and to work as a housemaid. She worked hard from the time she was very young, was extremely poor, and had little opportunity to get an education. In order to escape the terrible environment created by Louvinia's husband, Sarah married Moses McWilliams when she was only fourteen years old. At eighteen she gave birth to a daughter she named Lelia. Two years later her husband died.

Sarah then decided to move to St. Louis, Missouri, where she worked as a laundress (a woman who washes people's clothes as a job) and in other domestic positions for eighteen years. She joined St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopal Church and put her daughter through the public schools and Knoxville College. Sarah, who was barely literate (able to read and write), was especially proud of her daughter's educational accomplishments.

Develops hair care products

By the time Sarah was in her late thirties, she was dealing with hair loss because of a combination of stress and damaging hair care products. After experimenting with various methods, she developed a formula of her own that caused her hair to grow again quickly. She often said that after praying about her hair, she was given the formula in a dream. When friends and family members noticed how Sarah's hair grew back, they began to ask her to duplicate her product for them. She began to prepare her formula at home, selling it to friends and family and also selling it door to door.

Sarah began to advertise a growing number of hair care products with the help of her family and her second husband, Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaperman whom she had married in 1906 after she moved to Denver, Colorado. She also adopted her husband's initials and surname as her professional name, calling herself Madame C. J. Walker for the rest of her life, even after the marriage ended. Her husband helped her develop mail marketing techniques for her products, usually through the African American-owned newspapers. When their small business was successful, with earnings of about ten dollars a day, Walker thought she should continue to expand, but her husband thought otherwise. Rather than allow her husband's wishes to slow her work, the couple separated.

Business booms

Walker's business continued to expand. She not only marketed her hair care products but also tutored African American men and women in their use, recruiting a group called "Walker Agents." Her products were often used with a metal comb that was heated on the stove, then applied to straighten very curly hair. She also began to manufacture a facial skin cream. The hair process was controversial (open to dispute) because many felt that African American women should wear their hair in natural styles rather than attempt to change the texture from curly to straight. In spite of critics, Walker's hair care methods gained increasing popularity among African American women, who enjoyed products designed especially for them. This resulted in growing profits for Walker's business and an increasing number of agents who marketed the products for her door to door.

Walker worked closely with her daughter Lelia and opened a school for "hair culturists" in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,Lelia Collegewhich operated from 1908 to 1910. In 1910 the Walkers moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where they established a modern factory to produce their products. They also began to hire African American professionals who could direct various aspects of their operation. Among the workers were tutors who helped Walker get a basic education.

Walker traveled throughout the nation demonstrating her products, recruiting salespersons, and encouraging African American entrepreneurs (business investors). Her rounds included conventions of African American organizations, churches, and civic groups. Not content with her domestic achievements, Walker traveled to the Caribbean and Latin America to promote her business and to recruit individuals to teach her hair care methods. Observers estimated that Walker's company had about three thousand agents for whom Walker held annual conventions where they were tutored in product use, hygienic (cleaning) care techniques, and marketing strategies. She also gave cash awards to those who were most successful in promoting sales.

At Lelia's urging, Walker purchased property in New York City in 1913, with the belief that a base in that city would be important. In 1916 she moved to a luxurious town-house she had built in Harlem, and a year later to an estate called Villa Lewaro she had constructed at Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

Charity and legacy

Although Walker and her daughter lived well, they carefully managed each aspect of their business, whose headquarters remained in Indianapolis, and gave to a number of philanthropic (charity) organizations. According to rumor, Walker's first husband was lynched (killed by a group of people acting outside of the law). Perhaps it was partially for this reason that Walker supported antilynching legislation (laws) and gave generously to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), eventually willing that organization her estate in Irvington-on-Hudson. The Walkers generously supported religious, educational, charitable, and civil rights organizations.

Walker did not listen to her doctors' warnings that her fast-paced life was hurting her health. On May 25, 1919, when she was fifty-one years old, she died of hypertension (high blood pressure). Her funeral service was held in Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New York City. Celebrated African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune (18751955) delivered the eulogy (a tribute), and Walker was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Her daughter, Lelia, took over her role as president of the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.

For More Information

Bundles, A'Lelia Perry. On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. New York: Scribner, 2001.

Lasky, Kathryn. Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2000.

Lommel, Cookie. Madam C. J. Walker. Los Angeles: Melrose Square, 1993.

McKissack, Pat. Madam C. J. Walker: Self-Made Millionaire. Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1992.

Taylor, Marian. Madam C. J. Walker. New York: Chelsea Juniors, 1994.

Yannuzzi, Della A. Madam C. J. Walker: Self-Made Businesswoman. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2000.

Walker, Madam C. J.

views updated May 21 2018

Walker, Madam C. J.

December 23, 1867
May 25, 1919

Madame C. J. Walker was an entrepreneur, hair-care industry pioneer, philanthropist, and political activist. Born Sarah Breedlove to ex-slaves Owen and Minerva Breedlove on a Delta, Louisiana cotton plantation, she was orphaned by age seven. She lived with her sister, Louvenia, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, until 1882, when she married Moses McWilliams, in part to escape Louvenia's cruel husband. In 1887, when her daughter, Lelia (later known as A'Lelia Walker), was two years old, Moses McWilliams died. For the next eighteen years she worked as a laundress in St. Louis. But in 1905, with $1.50 in savings, the thirty-seven-year-old McWilliams moved to Denver to start her own business after developing a formula to treat her problem with baldnessan ailment common among African-American women at the time, brought on by poor diet, stress, illness, damaging hair-care treatments, and scalp disease. In January 1906 she married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper sales agent, who helped design her advertisements and mail-order operation.

Although Madam Walker is often said to have invented the "hot comb," it is more likely that she adapted metal implements popularized by the French to suit black women's hair. Acutely aware of the debate about whether black women should alter the appearance of their natural hair texture, she insisted years later that her Walker System was not intended as a hair "straightener" but rather as a grooming method to heal and condition the scalp to promote hair growth and prevent baldness.

From 1906 to 1916 Madam Walker traveled throughout the United States, Central America, and the West Indies promoting her business. She settled briefly in Pittsburgh, establishing the first Lelia College of Hair Culture there in 1908, then moved the company to Indianapolis in 1910, building a factory and vastly increasing her annual sales. Her reputation as a philanthropist was solidified in 1911, when she contributed one thousand dollars to the building fund of the Indianapolis YMCA. In 1912 she and C. J. Walker divorced, but she retained his name. Madam Walker joined her daughter, A'Lelia, and A'Lelia's adopted daughter, Mae (later Mae Walker Perry), in Harlem in 1916. She left the daily management of her manufacturing operation in Indianapolis to her longtime attorney and general manager, Freeman B. Ransom, factory forewoman Alice Kelly, and assistant general manager Robert L. Brokenburr.

Madam Walker's business philosophy stressed economic independence for the twenty thousand former maids, farm laborers, housewives, and schoolteachers she employed as agents and factory and office workers. To further strengthen her company, she created the Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America and held annual conventions.

During World War I Walker was among those who supported the government's black recruitment efforts and war bond drives. But after the bloody 1917 East St. Louis riot, she joined the planning committee of the Negro Silent Protest Parade, traveling to Washington, D.C., to present a petition urging President Woodrow Wilson to support legislation that would make lynching a federal crime. As her wealth and visibility grew, Walker became increasingly outspoken, joining those blacks who advocated an alternative peace conference at Versailles after the war to monitor proceedings affecting the world's people of color. She intended her estate in Irvington-on-Hudson, New YorkVilla Lewaro, which was designed by black architect Vertner W. Tandynot only as a showplace but as an inspiration to other blacks.

During the spring of 1919, aware that her long battle with hypertension was taking its final toll, Madam Walker revamped her will, directing her attorney to donate five thousand dollars to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's antilynching campaign and to contribute thousands of dollars to black educational, civic, and social institutions and organizations.

When she died at age fifty-one, at Villa Lewaro, Walker was widely considered the wealthiest black woman in America and was reputed to be the first African-American woman millionaire. Her daughter, A'Lelia Walkera central figure of the Harlem Renaissancesucceeded her as president of the Mme. C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.

Walker's significance is rooted not only in her innovative (and sometimes controversial) hair-care system but also in her advocacy of black women's economic independence and her creation of business opportunities at a time when most black women worked as servants and share-croppers. Her entrepreneurial strategies and organizational skills revolutionized what would become a multibillion-dollar ethnic hair-care and cosmetics industry by the last decade of the twentieth century. Having led an early life of hardship, she became a trailblazer of black philanthropy, using her wealth and influence to leverage social, political, and economic rights for women and blacks. In 1992 Madam Walker was elected to the National Business Hall of Fame.

See also Entrepreneurs and Entrepreneurship; Hair and Beauty Culture in the United States; Walker, A'Lelia


Bundles, A'Lelia Perry. Madam C. J. WalkerEntrepreneur. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.

Bundles, A'Lelia Perry. On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. New York: Scribner, 2001.

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: Morrow, 1984.

Lowry, Beverly. Her Dream of Dreams: The Rise and Triumph of Madam C. J. Walker. New York: Knopf, 2003.

a'lelia perry bundles (1996)
Updated bibliography

Walker, Madame C. J.

views updated May 11 2018


The first woman in the United States to become a millionaire through her own work, Madame C. J. Walker (18671919) was a pioneer in the creation of cosmetics created specifically for black women. An African American woman herself, Madame Walker not only invented many products for black women's hair and skin, but, in the early 1900s, she also created a very successful business based on door-to-door sales of her products. Madame C. J. Walker cosmetics paved the way for later door-to-door cosmetics companies, such as Avon and Mary Kay. Walker was not only a successful business-woman, she was also a leader in the black community and a lifelong supporter of women's economic independence.

Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, just after the end of the American Civil War (186165). Her parents were farmers who had been slaves for most of their lives, and Sarah's early life was full of poverty and hard work. Her parents died when she was seven, she was married at fourteen, and she was widowed by the age of twenty. In 1905 she moved to Denver, Colorado, where she married a reporter named C. J. Walker. Though they divorced in 1912, Madame Walker used his name for the rest of her life. Along with working as a laundress and a cook, she began to sell cosmetic products door-to-door for a company started by another African American woman, Annie Malone (18691957). By this time she noticed that her hair was falling out, which was not uncommon for black women, who often had stressful lives and poor nutrition caused by poverty. Walker was determined to find a solution to the problem, both for herself and for thousands of other African American women.

Some stories of Walker's life say that she had an aunt who knew how to use healing herbs. Others say she had a dream in which a black man gave her the formula for a hair tonic. However it happened, Walker took $1.50 she had saved from her laundry work and began to make and sell her own hair product, "Madame Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower." She traveled throughout the U.S. South, selling her products and building her business. By 1910 Walker had opened a factory in Indianapolis, Indiana, to make the many beauty products she developed with black women in mind. She also hired hundreds of women, most of them African American, to sell her products door-to-door. In 1908 she opened a school for "hair culturists" who would sell and teach women how to use Madame Walker's products.

Walker contributed a great deal to the cosmetics industry, which was just starting during the early part of the twentieth century. Her products and sales techniques were original and were a model for many companies that followed her. African American women were often forgotten by white businesses, but they too wanted to take part in the glamorous, more liberated fashions of the turn of the century. Walker not only offered a wide variety of products for women who had had very few beauty products before, she also offered jobs and financial independence to many black women. At the time of her death in New York in 1919, the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company was earning $250,000 per year and employed over ten thousand women. The company survived until 1985, when it was sold by her heirs.