Madam Cj Walker Biography Essay

Madame C. J. Walker Biography

Born: December 23, 1867
Delta, Louisiana
Died: May 25, 1919
New York, New York

African American businesswoman

As a manufacturer of hair care products for African American women, Madame C. J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, became one of the first American women millionaires.

Struggling childhood

Madame C. J. Walker, named Sarah Breedlove at birth, was born December 23, 1867, in Delta, Louisiana, to Owen and Minerva Breedlove, both of whom were emancipated (freed) slaves and worked on a cotton plantation. At the age of six Sarah's parents died after the area was struck by yellow fever, a deadly disease oftentimes spread by mosquitoes. The young girl then moved to Vicksburg to live with her sister Louvinia and to work as a housemaid. She worked hard from the time she was very young, was extremely poor, and had little opportunity to get an education. In order to escape the terrible environment created by Louvinia's husband, Sarah married Moses McWilliams when she was only fourteen years old. At eighteen she gave birth to a daughter she named Lelia. Two years later her husband died.

Sarah then decided to move to St. Louis, Missouri, where she worked as a laundress (a woman who washes people's clothes as a job) and in other domestic positions for eighteen years. She joined St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopal Church and put her daughter through the public schools and Knoxville College. Sarah, who was barely literate (able to read and write), was especially proud of her daughter's educational accomplishments.

Develops hair care products

By the time Sarah was in her late thirties, she was dealing with hair loss because of a combination of stress and damaging hair care products. After experimenting with various methods, she developed a formula of her own that caused her hair to grow again quickly. She often said that after praying about her hair, she was given the formula in a dream. When friends and family members noticed how Sarah's hair grew back, they began to ask her to duplicate her product for them. She began to prepare her formula at home, selling it to friends and family and also selling it door to door.

Sarah began to advertise a growing number of hair care products with the help of her family and her second husband, Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaperman whom she had married in 1906 after she moved to Denver, Colorado. She also adopted her husband's initials and surname as her professional name,

Madame C. J. Walker.
Reproduced by permission of the

Granger Collection

calling herself Madame C. J. Walker for the rest of her life, even after the marriage ended. Her husband helped her develop mail marketing techniques for her products, usually through the African American-owned newspapers. When their small business was successful, with earnings of about ten dollars a day, Walker thought she should continue to expand, but her husband thought otherwise. Rather than allow her husband's wishes to slow her work, the couple separated.

Business booms

Walker's business continued to expand. She not only marketed her hair care products but also tutored African American men and women in their use, recruiting a group called "Walker Agents." Her products were often used with a metal comb that was heated on the stove, then applied to straighten very curly hair. She also began to manufacture a facial skin cream. The hair process was controversial (open to dispute) because many felt that African American women should wear their hair in natural styles rather than attempt to change the texture from curly to straight. In spite of critics, Walker's hair care methods gained increasing popularity among African American women, who enjoyed products designed especially for them. This resulted in growing profits for Walker's business and an increasing number of agents who marketed the products for her door to door.

Walker worked closely with her daughter Lelia and opened a school for "hair culturists" in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,—Lelia College—which operated from 1908 to 1910. In 1910 the Walkers moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where they established a modern factory to produce their products. They also began to hire African American professionals who could direct various aspects of their operation. Among the workers were tutors who helped Walker get a basic education.

Walker traveled throughout the nation demonstrating her products, recruiting salespersons, and encouraging African American entrepreneurs (business investors). Her rounds included conventions of African American organizations, churches, and civic groups. Not content with her domestic achievements, Walker traveled to the Caribbean and Latin America to promote her business and to recruit individuals to teach her hair care methods. Observers estimated that Walker's company had about three thousand agents for whom Walker held annual conventions where they were tutored in product use, hygienic (cleaning) care techniques, and marketing strategies. She also gave cash awards to those who were most successful in promoting sales.

At Lelia's urging, Walker purchased property in New York City in 1913, with the belief that a base in that city would be important. In 1916 she moved to a luxurious town-house she had built in Harlem, and a year later to an estate called Villa Lewaro she had constructed at Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

Charity and legacy

Although Walker and her daughter lived well, they carefully managed each aspect of their business, whose headquarters remained in Indianapolis, and gave to a number of philanthropic (charity) organizations. According to rumor, Walker's first husband was lynched (killed by a group of people acting outside of the law). Perhaps it was partially for this reason that Walker supported antilynching legislation (laws) and gave generously to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), eventually willing that organization her estate in Irvington-on-Hudson. The Walkers generously supported religious, educational, charitable, and civil rights organizations.

Walker did not listen to her doctors' warnings that her fast-paced life was hurting her health. On May 25, 1919, when she was fifty-one years old, she died of hypertension (high blood pressure). Her funeral service was held in Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New York City. Celebrated African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) delivered the eulogy (a tribute), and Walker was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Her daughter, Lelia, took over her role as president of the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.

For More Information

Bundles, A'Lelia Perry. On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. New York: Scribner, 2001.

Lasky, Kathryn. Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2000.

Lommel, Cookie. Madam C. J. Walker. Los Angeles: Melrose Square, 1993.

McKissack, Pat. Madam C. J. Walker: Self-Made Millionaire. Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1992.

Taylor, Marian. Madam C. J. Walker. New York: Chelsea Juniors, 1994.

Yannuzzi, Della A. Madam C. J. Walker: Self-Made Businesswoman. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2000.

Madam C.J. Walker

1867 - 1919

In 1917 Madam C.J. Walker was one of the wealthiest women in the United States. She developed a line of cosmetics and hair products especially for African-American women. She trained many women to become sales representatives. She once told a group of women,

"There is no royal flower-strewn road to success, and if there is, I have not found it, for what success I have obtained is the result of many sleepless nights and real hard work."

Madam C.J. Walker by A'Lelia Perry Bundles

She had worked hard all her life, beginning in the cotton fields and later as a washerwoman when she was young.

It was a popular notion among black women at that time that shampooing was not good for the hair. When she began to have scalp problems she experimented and developed products to cure her own problem and in doing so started a very lucrative business which would benefit her and many other African- American women who used the products and went into business for themselves in the "Walker System".

She was born in 1867 and her name was Sarah Breedlove. Her parents were freed slaves and continued at the plantation as sharecroppers.

Sarah was not able to get an education when she was young because she was working all the time. Tragically when she was eight years old both her parents died of disease and the six children were left to fend for themselves.

Due to prejudice and social unrest blacks were being murdered in their area and the family moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Sarah earned money by washing clothes. They did not have washing machines in those days. They just had big wooden tubs filled with soapy water and washboards on which they scrubbed the clothes. After scrubbing the clothes they boiled them, lifted them out of the boiling water, and hung them on the line to dry. The wrinkles were removed from the dried clothes with big irons heated on a stove.

When she was 14 she married Moses McWilliams to get away from the situation where she was living with her sister and her mean husband. When she was 17 she had baby girl, Lelia. Then her husband died. What was she to do?

She took her four-year-old daughter and moved to St. Louis where her brothers lived. She received help from many middle-class black women in St. Louis. Her little girl went to school and Sarah began saving money to send her to college.

She married a man named John David, but he was an alcoholic and after nine years she divorced him.

Sarah started selling hair products for the Poro company. Some people think a pharmacist may have helped her analyze the ingredients and suggested ways to improve the product. She began making her own products and carefully guarded her formula. She advertised in the newspapers and used before and after photos of herself to show how well her hair preparation worked. The "before" pictures showed her hair short, thin, and stubby, and the "after" pictures showed her with a full head of long healthy hair.

She met a man named Charles Joseph Walker (C.J.). They married and she called herself Madam C.J. Walker. One of her most popular products was Madam C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower. She gave free demonstrations and trained women to sell the hair and beauty products.

The business continued to grow. Sarah and her husband moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a good city from which to distribute the packages across the nation. At this time she was annually making the equivalent of $150,000 in today's dollars.

She opened a beauty salon, then a school to train agents to sell the products. She named it Lelia College after her daughter. The graduates received certificates and were called hair culturists.

The next step was to build a factory to produce large quantities of the hair preparation and other beauty supplies. She tried to get investors. She appealed to Booker T. Washington, but he declined saying he had all he could do at Tuskegee Institute.

She did not get the investors she needed, but they settled in Indianapolis, Indiana and built the factory there. It would eventually employ more than 3000 African-American men and women.

Walker was generous and contributed to causes which benefited African-Americans. She helped Mary McLeod Bethune to establish a school for girls.

Walker expanded her business again by going to the Caribbean and Central America. By 1917 she had trained 20,000 agents. The business was going well, but her marriage wasn't. She and C.J. divorced in 1914.

Booker T. Washington wouldn't have anything to do with Walker. It was probably because he thought she was advocating straight hair for African-American women which many thought was a white trait. He continued to ignore her until one day at a convention she stood up, introduced herself, and told her story. After that he gained a new respect for her. Eventually they developed a good working relationship.

There were few cars in the early 1900's, but Walker owned two, one driven by a chauffeur and a small electric car she drove herself.

Lelia her daughter opened a luxurious salon in New York. Walker went to live with Lelia and Lelia's adopted daughter Mae. She gave elaborate dinners at the Harlem townhouse.

She built a 30-room mansion by the Hudson River in an exclusive neighborhood. Enrico Caruso, the famous tenor suggested she name it Villa Lewaro. The word Lewaro was a word made from the first two letters of each of Lelia's name, LElia WAlker RObinson.

Her health began to decline and she died May 25, 1919 of kidney disease. Thousands attended her funeral and honored her for the good she had done for African-Americans and for equal rights.

This biography by Patsy Stevens, a retired teacher, was written in 2010.

The facts in this story were found in the book Madam C.J. Walker: Entrepreneur and Millionaire
by Darlene R. Stille (selected pages)

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Biography Slideshows


From Word Central's Student Dictionary
by Merriam - Webster
(Pronunciation note: the schwa sound is shown by ə,
the long vowel sound is shown with a capital letter)


Pronunciation: loo'-krət-iv
Function: adjective
producing wealth, profitable


Pronunciation: shaər-krahp-ər
Function: noun
a farmer who works land for the owner in return
for a share of the value of the crop


Function: noun
a person trained to make and distribute medicine


Pronunciation: kəl-chər
improvement of the mind, tastes, and manners through careful training


Pronunciation: ad'-və-kAt
to speak in favor of : argue for


Pronunciation: har'-ləm
Function: geographical name
section of New York City in N Manhattan

Research Links

Madam C.J. Walker
official website

Madam C.J. Walker
at Wikipedia

Madam C.J. Walker
Women in History

Madam C.J. Walker

A'Lelia Walker
daughter of Mrs. Walker

The Booker T. Washington Era
(scroll to the bottom for pictures of C.J.Walker.)

Madam C.J. Walker
biography with audio version

Madam C.J. Walker
The Indianapolis Star

Madam C.J. Walker
Black Inventor Online Museum



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Order the following books from Amazon.

Madam C.J. Walker, Lives and Times
by Margaret Hall, M. C. Hall (selected pages) Order here

On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker
by Alelia Bundles (selected pages)

Madam C.J. Walker
by Cookie Lommel (selected pages)

Madam C.J. Walker, History Maker Bios
by Susan Bivin Aller (selected pages)

Madam C.J. Walker: Entrepreneur and Millionaire
by Darlene R. Stille (selected pages)

Madam C.J. Walker Pioneer Businesswoman
by Katherine E. Krohn (selected pages)

Madam C.J. Walker and New Cosmetics, Graphic Library
by Katherine Krohn (selected pages)

African American awareness for young children: A curriculum
by Evia L. Davis (selected pages)

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