December 23 – Happy Birthday, Madame C. J. Walker

Posted on December 23, 2016

Born Sarah Breedlove on this date 1867, in Louisiana, Madame C. J. Walker became "the most" in several categories:

She was the first self-made female millionaire in the U.S.

She was one of the wealthiest African American women of her time.

She was one of the most successful African American business owners of all time!

There was no indication from the start of Walker's life that she would become so mostiest! She was the first in her family to be born into freedom (her parents and older siblings were all enslaved), and she was an orphan by age seven. She went to work as a domestic (maid) when she was ten years old, and she married at a shockingly young age -- 14! She had a baby girl, and her husband died when that daughter was only two years old.

So...things were hard!

Sarah was living in Missouri, working as a laundress, and determined to make enough money to provide her daughter with an education. She was experiencing skin and hair problems - a common thing for poor women and for black women - but she was learning about hair from her barber brothers, and eventually she began to sell hair products as a commission agent. At that point, she began to fiddle around with products, experimenting with what worked or didn't work for her own hair, and she ended up developing her own line. 

At that point, marriage had given her the Walker name, and so Sarah's products became Madame C. J. Walker's hair care products.

How did Walker build her business? She sold her products door-to-door and taught other black women how to groom their hair. She ran a mail-order operation. She traveled with her husband to expand the business. Together they relocated and opened a beauty salon. They opened a college and began to train "hair culturists." They expanded to a second office and beauty salon.

Eventually, Walker built a factory, hair salon, beauty school, and even a laboratory to help her develop better and better products. 

Walker worked with her husband and her grown daughter, but she also of course hired many people to work in her growing business. She hired a lot of women, including for management positions. 

Walker did a lot of charitable works, including raising money to start a branch of the YMCA, establishing scholarships to the Tuskegee Institute, and contributing money to schools and projects started by other African Americans. She was also active in politics and the NAACP.

Madame C. J. Walker died too soon, at age 51, from high blood pressure. She willed a lot of money to orphanages and institutions and directed that her profits made from her estate would continue to support charities.

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