by Carrie Lowrance
Women have come a long way. Long gone are the days of not being able to work, vote, or have many other privileges that we do today. There have been so many women who have become self-made millionaires in all kinds of industries-business, tech, creative arts, and the list goes on.
Many women today are either running their own companies or at the head of them. Women like Mary Dillon of Ulta Beauty and Michelle Gaas of Kohls. There are also women in the creative arts that are blazing their own ways like poet Rupi Kaur, author Nora Roberts, and singer Taylor Swift. All of these ladies have blazed their own path on their own terms.
Still, have you ever wondered who the first female self-made millionaire was? Well, her name was Madam CJ Walker. She was born Sarah Breedlove near the town of Delta, Louisiana. Her parents were recently freed slaves, and Sarah was one of five children. She was the first in her family not to be born under slave ownership.
Sarah was left an orphan at seven years old and went to live with her sister and brother-in-law. They eventually moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi where she probably picked cotton and was employed as a housekeeper, although there is no evidence of this.
When Sarah was 14, she married a man named Moses McWilliams to escape her oppressive situation. In June of 1885, she gave birth to a daughter named A’Lelia. Two years later, Moses died, and Sarah and her daughter moved to St. Louis.
Her brother’s had already established a thriving barbershop there. She found work as a wash-woman and was able to send A’Lelia to the city public school on a meager $1.50 a day salary. Sarah also attended night school when she was able. She also met her second husband, Charles J Walker, in St. Louis. Walker worked in advertising and would later help Sarah market her hair care business.
Hair Care and Building the Business
Sarah had a scalp condition that caused her to lose almost all of her hair. Soon she began trying both at home remedies and store-bought remedies to try and help her situation. In 1905, Sarah was hired by a successful black woman named Annie Turnbo Malone. Annie wanted Sarah to be a commission agent for her business in Colorado.
While there, Sarah’s husband, Charles, helped her with advertising for the new hair care product for African Americans that she was tweaking. Listening to her husband’s advice, she decided to name her brand “Madam CJ Walker” so she would be easily recognized.
In 1907, she and Charles traveled the South and Southeast, showing people her “Walker Method” of doing hair which included her own pomade formula, brushing, and the use of heated combs. As her profits grew, Sarah opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh, PA.
By the time she moved her business to Indianapolis in 1910, her earnings were the equivalent of several million dollars in today’s economy and her products were wildly successful. The Indianapolis company not only manufactured cosmetics but also trained salespeople to sell them. The famous “Walker Agents” soon became well known across the country in African American communities.
These agents promoted “cleanliness and hygiene” as a way for African Americans to advance their status in society. Sarah organized not only clubs for her “agents” but also conventions where not only successful sales were celebrated, but also philanthropic and educational efforts among black people.
Headed to Harlem
Sarah and Charles divorced in 1913, but Sarah continued to travel and promote her company, products and recruit people to teach her methods of hair care. While she was traveling, her daughter A’Lelia helped bring about the purchase of a property in Harlem.
Once Sarah returned from her travels, she moved into her new home in Harlem. She continued to operate her business but left the day-to-day operations of the Indianapolis factory for someone else to run. She immersed herself in the philanthropic and political scene in Harlem, founding educational scholarships and helping the elderly with their homes.
She also founded other organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as well as other organizations to enrich the lives of African Americans. Sarah also made the largest donation ever to a YMCA from an African American person.
Sarah “Madam CJ Walker” passed away from hypertension on May 25, 1919. She was the sole owner of her million dollar business. In our modern times, she is widely credited as the first female self-made millionaire. She left part of her estate to her daughter, who also had an essential role in the Harlem Renaissance.
Her legacy has inspired African-Americans and women to start their own businesses, and give back to their communities. The Walker Building, which is an arts center that Breedlove was working on before she passed, was opened in 1927 in Indianapolis. In 1998, a stamp was issued of “Madam CJ Walker.” To learn more about Madam C.J. Walker visit her website.
Carrie Lowrance is a writer and author. Her work has been featured on Huffington Post, The Penny Hoarder, Crosswalk, and Same Journey. She is also the author of two children’s books, Don’t Eat Your Boogers (You’ll Turn Green) and Brock’s Bad Temper (And The Time Machine). You can find out more about Carrie and her writing at carrielowrance.com