Madame C.J. Walker (1867 – 1919)

From the Shadows of Slavery to America’s First Self Made Female Millionaire

One of the greatest things about a capitalist / entrepreneur economy is that it often thrives when people see reflected in their own lives opportunities that they then capitalize on by providing solutions for others with similar challenges.  Madam CJ Walker is the epitome of exactly that.

Walker was born near Delta, Louisiana in the post-Civil War America of 1867 into a family of recently freed slaves.  At the tender age of 7 she found herself orphaned and at 10 was sent to live with her older sister in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where she was sent to work as a domestic servant and field hand. 

In 1882 at the age of 14 she married in an effort to escape the abuse from her brother-in-law, and three years later she had her only child, a daughter named A’Lelia.  Widowed at 20, Walker and her daughter moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1888. It was in St. Louis, where her three brothers owned a barber shop that she would dip her toe in the water that would nourish her later in life, hair care.

Around 1904, about the time of the collapse of her second marriage, Walker began working as a commission sales agent for the Poro Company, a firm that sold hair care products for black customers. The owner of Poro was Annie Malone, an entrepreneur herself and later Walker’s primary competitor and legal opponent.  Walker tried to sell Poro products at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, but sales were dismal. 

About this time Walker’s hair started falling out as a result using hair care products featuring lye and other harsh materials as well as stress, poor diet and poor hygiene, not an unusual problem for turn of the century America where very few homes had running water. 

In 1906, a year after moving to Denver, Colorado and getting married for the last time (and where the name Walker would come from) Walker would start her own company and change her life forever.  Using knowledge garnered in her brothers’ barber shop, as well as info from a local chemist and experience garnered while at Poro, Walker would produce a product line of cosmetic creams that incorporated sulfur, beeswax and fragrance.

Her husband and partner provided advice on marketing and Walker sold her products door to door while putting her daughter in charge of selling via mail order.  Two years later, after crisscrossing the country doing door to door sales, they would move to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania where Walker would open a beauty salon and a training center for stylists.  More consequently, she would also open a training center for teaching the “Walker System” for selling her products. 

Never one to stay in one place for too long, in 1910 Walker moved again, relocating to Indianapolis, Indiana and building a salon, training center and a factory for her products.  Her company was growing by leaps and bounds as she’d clearly found a market in need of servicing – haircare for black women – and produced an army of empowered a motivated sales agents. 

Walker’s agents would demonstrate her products in their homes, in client homes and in salons across the country. By 1917 the company had trained 20,000 agents, who could earn between $5 & $15 a day at a time when the average American wage was under $60 a month. 

In 1916, two years after her divorce from her last husband, Walker moved to Harlem, New York with her daughter.  By that time Walker’s business was thriving and she was a millionaire.  Seeking a place to relax and entertain, Walker would spend $350,000 ($10 million in today’s dollars) to have a 34 room Italian styled villa built in Irvington, NY, 30 miles north of Manhattan and home to Rockefellers and Astors.  Finished in 1918, Walker would entertain at the estate as well as host lavish events for her agents.  But not for long.

Sarah “Madame” C.J. Walker would die of kidney failure at 51 in 1919, having done the extraordinary.  She was born into a family of former slaves and grew up in an abusive home.  She would however, with a mere three months of formal education, not only go on to become America’s first female self-made millionaire, but she would do so while simultaneously empowering tens of thousands of black women at a time when good opportunities for blacks and women were limited.  An even more, was a prodigious supporter of charities both during her life and after, writing into her will that her mansion – christened “Villa Lewaro” by famed Italian tenor Enrico Caruso during one of Walker’s parties – would pass to the NAACP after the death of her daughter. Although she died a thousand miles geographically from where she was born, the life of Madame C.J. Walker was a million mile journey in overcoming obstacles and empowering those around her as she did so.