Madam C. J. Walker: America’s First Self-Made Female Millionaire

Being an English person, I hadn’t heard of Madam C J Walker, the first self-made, black female millionaire in America. I came across her by pure accident Whilst scrolling through Netflix for something to watch, I found Self Made, the recent drama about Madam C J Walker’s success in creating hair products made for, sold by, and targeted at black women. I must admire her tenacity at a time when black women were trapped in hardworking roles in farm labour or laundry, she wanted to make a better life, not just for herself, but all black women.

Madam C J Walker was born as Sarah Breedlove on the 23rd of December 1867 as the fifth child of Owen and Minerva. She was the first of their children to be born after the emancipation following the American Civil War. From a young age, this meant she would have known exactly what hard work and racism was. Perhaps she would have even thought that through hard work, she could prove her worth. Sadly, this wasn’t the end of hardship in the early part of her life as she was orphaned at 6 and married Moses Williams at 14 to escape her abusive brother-in-law.[1] By the age of twenty, she was a young widow with a young daughter, A’Lelia.

After the death of Moses, she took on laundry to earn money, as well as balancing motherhood, so there is no doubt she led a busy and stressful life.[2] It was during this time that she developed a scalp problem, which made her lose a lot of her hair, and started trying various hair products to make her hair grow back. Her enterprising nature realised just how little hair products were available for black women. A lot of what was there was made by white businesses, who didn’t really have a clue how to market to a black audience. Instead, they appeared to conform to white ideas of beauty were, assuming that black women wanted the same look, especially as there was a desire to aspire to ‘whiteness’.[3] In that respect, Madam Walker was different. Her products focused on the benefits of healthy hair, rather than just for beauty. The products focused on scalp preparations and lotions aiming at promoting hair health.[4]

Madam C.J. Walker—Preparations, 1920, Photograph, https://www.loc.gov/item/2002716791/

Sarah took on the name Madam C J Walker after her marriage to Charles J Walker in 1906 after they moved from St Louis to Denver, Colorado. Charles was initially supportive of the business venture and he was often involved in the marketing and advertising of products.[5] This lasted until the couple grew apart and eventually divorced. Sarah still went by the name Madam C J Walker until her death because her products used the same name.

Despite some innovations in the style of products, it was the way that the business was run that was truly innovative. When her business started to grow, Sarah’s business model changed from her selling direct to customers, she hired door-to-door sellers. These sellers were all black women who were purposefully trained to develop their skills, not just in selling Madam Walker’s products, but finding innovative ways to help the poor in their communities.[6] Sarah’s belief in the enterprising nature of black women is clear in her confrontation of Booker T. Washington’s business convention in 1912. He had denied both her, and anyone else attempting to speak on her behalf, any opportunity of presenting. It was claimed this was because he believed Madam C J Walker’s beauty products, as well any aimed at black women, were destructive to black women and instead encouraged white behaviours.[7] Sarah believed in her product and how the business could become a positive thing. Indeed, it was as it would go on to employ an estimated 20,000 sales agents across America and beyond.[8]

Madam C. J. Walker, c. 1914, Scurlock Studio (Washington, D.C.), Wikimedia Commons

The company became a safe “public sphere of leisure, labour, and politics” which black women could participate in.[9] Madam Walker herself did this through raising the profile of racism and inequality for black people during the early 20th century. Not only did she attend the White House in 1917 to protest against lynching, but she gave much of her wealth away to help black causes.[10] It helped to fund a scholarship for women at the Tuskegee Institute, just to name one.[11]

Sarah died of kidney failure caused by hypertension in 1919 at the age of 51, at one of her 3 large houses. In her will she left two-thirds of the company’s net profits to the charities and schools she had promoted in life.[12] Her main legacy is the promotion of black female talent by creating a female run business, purposefully designed to promote the health, happiness, and equality of black women. This certainly continues as the business has since passed on to the subsequent female generations of Sarah’s family.

Whilst this post is not an extensive example of Madam C J Walker’s achievements or life, I do hope that it has helped to raise her profile, particularly here in the UK. I hope that it serves as a reflection of what she was able to do, despite the barriers and prejudice that were in front of her. Both Madam Walker and her selling agents did a job that was ahead of their time. I utterly commend them and give them a standing ovation for what they managed to create. They deserved every success they had.

If you would like to find out more about Madam C. J. Walker, I would suggest that you read her biography, On Her Own Grounds, written by great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Perry Bundles, who is also the current owner of the Madam C. J. Walker Company. It’s a very insightful book that often shows Sarah’s motivations and how she is remembered by her family.


[1] Michals, D., ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/madam-cj-walker ; History, ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker

[2] History, ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker

[3] Baldwin, D. L., ‘From the Washtub to the World: Madam C. J Walker and the “Re-Creation” of Race Womanhood, 1900-1935’, in Weinbaum, A. E., Thomas, L. M., Ramamurthy, P., Poiger, U. G., Dong, M. Y. and Barlow, T. E. (eds), The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalisation (Duke University Press: Durham, North Carolina, 2008), p. 56; History, ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker

[4] History, ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker

[5] History, ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker

[6] Michals, D., ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/madam-cj-walker

[7] Baldwin, D. L., ‘From the Washtub to the World’, p. 56.

[8] Baldwin, D. L., ‘From the Washtub to the World’, p. 57.

[9] Baldwin, D. L., ‘From the Washtub to the World’, p. 57.

[10] Bundles, A., On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Scribner: New York, 2001), p. 15.

[11] Michals, D., ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/madam-cj-walker

[12] Michals, D., ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/madam-cj-walker

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