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Madam C. J. Walker

Sarah Breedlove (aka Madam C. J. Walker)
December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919
Notable: Entrepreneur
Nationality: American


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Sarah Breedlove was born on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana to Owen and Minerva Breedlove. Her parents and four older siblings had been enslaved. But Breedlove’s birth almost four years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two years after the Civil War’s end made her the first person in her family to be born free.

Like many other formerly enslaved people Breedlove’s parents became sharecroppers. In this farming tenant arrangement that was barely removed from slavery, the Breedloves found themselves consistently poor. As had been the custom with enslaved children, Breedlove began working by age five. She helped to carry water, plant seeds, and manually hand wash clothes.

Yet, circumstances further deteriorated when both parents died leaving Breedlove an orphan at age seven. Breedlove went to live with her older sister, Louvenia. Together they supported themselves by working in Delta’s cotton fields. When the local cotton crop failed, the sisters relocated to Vicksburg, Mississippi where they found work as domestics and washerwomen.

Breedlove would later explain that her sister’s husband, Jesse Powell, was abusive. Hoping to escape poverty and abuse, at the age of 14, Breedlove married Moses McWilliams. Three years later, the union produced a daughter, Breedlove’s only child, Lelia. Tragedy struck again when McWilliams died, leaving Breedlove a widow at around 20 years old.

Breedlove moved to St. Louis, Missouri with her daughter. This was motivated by a desire to be closer to her brothers who were doing well for themselves working as barbers. And also because she’d been told that jobs were plentiful and offered better pay.

For almost two decades, Breedlove would earn a living as a laundress or washerwoman. Given the time, this was very difficult work. Clothes were washed by hand with harsh lye soap and tubs of scalding hot water. While backbreaking, this work made it possible for Breedlove to provide her daughter with the education that she had not received in hopes that she would have an easier life.

While in St. Louis, Breedlove joined the AME Church and National Association of Colored Women which brought her into contact with local well-to-do Black people. They would further inspire her hopes for a better life. Breedlove also met and married her second husband, John Davis. The marriage later ended in divorce due to Breedlove allegedly having to provide for Davis who was an abusive philandering alcoholic.

In her 30s, Breedlove began to lose her hair. This was likely due to years of stress, financial instability, and hard physical labor beginning to take its toll. She sought advice from her brothers and also tried various hair products. Searching for a cure for her hair loss introduced Breedlove to Annie Turnbo Malone’s “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower.”

Malone was a Black entrepreneur in the haircare industry and hired Breedlove as a sales agent. In 1905, Breedlove relocated once again this time to Denver, Colorado. Some sources state she continued to work as a rep for Malone. Other sources state she went to work for a pharmacist who taught her the basic chemistry of hair products.

Within a year, Breedlove married her third husband, Charles Joseph “C.J.” Walker, a newspaper salesman she’d met in St. Louis. After they married, Breedlove began to refer to herself as “Madam C. J. Walker”.

Upon arriving in Denver, Walker spent her free time experimenting with hair growth products. She sold the products door-to-door and received assistance from C.J. with marketing and mail-order distribution. The couple traveled across America, the Caribbean, and Central America building relationships and training sales agents to support their growing company.

After the roadshow, the couple initially settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where Walker opened a beauty school. Following their divorce two years later, Walker moved to Indianapolis, Indiana where she established the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.

The company generated revenue that made Walker very wealthy. But Walker also used the company to provide benefits intended to uplift the Black community. The Black women hired as sales agents and trained as beauticians were given employment options beyond being domestics, washerwomen, or farmhands. And Walker also made generous donations, first to individuals in need and later to organizations. She provided financial backing for the Campaign Against Lynching, scholarships, and orphan/elderly housing.

In 1916, Walker moved to Harlem leaving the day-to-day operation of the company’s businesses to trusted employees. While suffering from high blood pressure and kidney failure, Walker became involved in Harlem’s social scene. The company’s sales are believed to have pushed Walker’s net worth above $1 million enabling her to build a mansion in New York City’s northern suburbs while also acquiring properties in Harlem and other cities.

During her life, Walker achieved her dream of providing her daughter with a better life. When she died at the relatively young age of 51, Walker bequeathed her estate to her daughter and various charities.


  1. “(H)Our History Lesson: Madam C. J. Walker, African American Millionaire, Philanthropist, Activist (U.S. National Park Service).” n.d. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed August 9, 2023.
  2. Bundles, A’Lelia. 2020. “About Madam C. J. Walker.” Madam C.J. Walker. 2020.
  3. Bundles, A’Lelia. 2023. “Madam C.J. Walker.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. August 7, 2023.
  4. Dibdin, Emma. 2021. “Madam C.J. Walker’s Life Got the Netflix Treatment with Self-Made. Here’s the True Story.” Town & Country. Hearst Magazine Media, Inc. November 2, 2021.
  5. Editors, ed. 2022. “Madam C. J. Walker.” History.Com. A&E Television Networks. March 15, 2022.
  6. “Madam C. J. Walker.” n.d. Philanthropy Roundtable. Accessed August 9, 2023.
  7. Michals, Debra. 2015. “Biography: Madam C.J. Walker.” National Women’s History Museum. 2015.
  8. White, Claytee D. 2023. “Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919).” Blackpast.Org. March 6, 2023.

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