Madame C. J. Walker (December 23, 1867–May 25, 1919), was an
African American philanthropist and tycoon.
Born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, the first member of her
family born free, she was raised on farms there and in Mississippi
and started out by picking cotton on a plantation. She was orphaned
at age seven, married at age fourteen (to Moses McWilliams), and widowed
at twenty, at which point she moved to St. Louis, joining her brothers.
She worked as a laundress for as little as a dollar and a half a day,
but she was able to save enough to educate her daughter.
She became interested in hair tonics while trying to treat a scalp
ailment that left her temporarily bald. In 1905, Sarah moved to Denver,
working as a hair tonic sales agent for Annie Malone, another black
woman entrepreneur. She married her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker,
a St. Louis newspaperman, changed her name to "Madam" C.
J. Walker, and founded the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company
to sell hair care products and cosmetics. By 1917, it was the largest
business in the United States owned by an African-American. The Guinness
Book of Records cites Walker as the first female American self-made
Yet Walker saw her personal wealth as not an end in itself but a means
to help promote and expand economic opportunities for others, especially
African Americans. She took great pride in the profitable employment—and
alternative to domestic labor—that her company afforded many
thousands of black women who worked for commissioned agents. Walker
was also known for her philanthropy, supporting African American's
educational and social institutions from the national to the grass
roots levels. Including donating to such causes as the NAACP, the Tuskegee
Institute, and Bethune-Cookman College.
Walker's daughter A'Lelia Walker, carried on this tradition, opening
her mother's and her homes to writers and artists of the emergent Harlem
Renaissance and becoming a catalytic figure in that movement.