Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919)
Entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on a cotton plantation to former slaves in Delta, Louisiana. She was an orphan by age seven and worked in cotton fields with her older sister to survive. She later married, but when her husband died, she was left as a single parent of a two-year old daughter. She supported her family by washing laundry and she used her earning as a laundress to pay for her daughter’s education at Knoxville College.
In 1889, Walker moved to St. Louis to look for better work. She became a saleswoman for a black hair-care entrepreneur named Annie Turnbo Malone who employed black women to sell her products door-to-door. After experiencing severe hair loss herself, Walker experimented with her own hair formulas. When she perfected a formula she called “Wonderful Hair Grower,” she decided to try her luck at creating her own business.
In 1905, she moved to Denver. She renamed herself “Madame C.J. Walker,” and used her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker’s advertising expertise to build a mail-order business. After divorcing her husband, Walker relocated to Indianapolis in 1910. After years of hard work, she had established a factory, training schools, and a national network of licensed sales agents selling her product. Her company would become known as the Walker Company. It was composed of 20,000 men and women agents in the U.S., Central America, and the Caribbean. The total sales of her company during the final year of her life reached over $500,000, and with the value of her personal assets, she had accumulated a worth of over one million dollars.
In addition to running a lucrative business, Walker was a noted philanthropist. She made donations to the YMCA and worked with the NAACP as well as donated money to many causes such as the anti-lynching movement. She became a strong advocate of Black women’s economic independence and her personal business philosophy stressed economic independence for all women. She used her wealth and status to work toward political and social rights for African Americans and women.
- Bundles, A'Lelia. On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. Washington Square Press, 2002.
- Hobkirk, Lori. Madam C.J. Walker, Journey to Freedom. Child’s World, 2000. [ages 9-12]
- Lommel, Cookie. Madam CJ Walker. Holloway House Publishing Company, 1993.
- Lowry, Beverly. Her Dream of Dreams: The Rise and Triumph of Madam C.J. Walker. Knopf, 2003.
- Bundles, A’Lelia. “Walker, Madam C.J.,” updated 2001, www.madamcjwalker.com/ (14 December 2005).
- “Madam C.J. Walker,” Enterprising Women, n.d., www.enterprisingwomenexhibit.org (14 December 2005).
- “Louisiana Leaders: Notable Women, Madam C.J. Walker,” Louisiana State University, updated 8 July 2003, www.lib.lsu.edu/soc/women/lawomen/walker.html (14 December 2005).