Today we honor and celebrate a pioneering entrepreneur and advocate, Madam C.J. Walker. Born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana in 1867, the future Madam Walker spent the first 40 years of her life as a wife and homemaker. Her third marriage (after burying two husbands) was to Charles Joseph Walker, a publisher, in 1906.
Like many African-American women, Breedlove suffered from scalp disease and hair loss as a result of limited plumbing and hygiene–one of the many consequences of racism when you deny a group of people adequate living conditions. She had experimented with a number of remedies and shampoos and by the time she married Walker she had perfected a formula that had the results she wanted. She decided to market the product and soon she and her husband had a thriving mail-order business with Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. She opened a “hair culturist” college in Pittsburgh and then moved to Indianapolis where she headquartered her growing empire.
Due to the success of her business efforts and her sharp acumen at promotion and marketing, she amassed a small fortune. Walker was the first African-American millionaire; she was also the first American woman to become a millionaire through her own efforts.
For the last decade of her life, Walker was active in education and advocacy. She ran classes for African-American women to teach them to run their own businesses. She was active in the NAACP and the YMCA; she also made the largest single donation to preserve the birthplace of Frederick Douglass as a historical landmark. Madam C.J. Walker died in 1919 from hypertension, leaving behind an impressive legacy of business sense and philanthropy.