1867 – 1919
Madam C.J. Walker had three names during the course of her life. She was born Sarah Breedlove the daughter of former slaves. Married at fourteen she became Sarah McWilliams. On her second marriage in 1905 she became Sarah Walker and was known as Madam C.J. Walker from then on. When her first husband died Madam Walker moved from Louisiana to St Louis, Missouri earning her keep as a washerwoman while attending school at night. Around this time her hair began to fall out and nothing she did would stop it.
One night Madam Walker dreamed of a cure for her hair loss. She found the ingredients, blended them together and applied the mixture to her hair. It worked. Madam Walker mixed more of the formula and began selling it to friends, neighbours and from door to door.
The product was so successful that she eventually expanded her business to Denver, Colorado. It was there that she met and married Charles Walker.
Courtesy of the Smithonian Museum
Though famous for her hair care products Madam Walker is more widely known for the invention of the pressing comb and a conditioner for straightening hair, a practice common amongst black women in that era.
In 1910 Madam Walker established a factory in Indianapolis employing 5,000 black women. As a prominent and active member of the community Madam Walker gave thousands of dollars to the Tuskegee Institute, the *NAACP and various other black charities. She also assisted in establishing the Mary McLeod Bethune School, which is now the Bethune – Cookman College in Daytona, Florida. Madam Walker was a success in many ways. When she died in 1919 her estate was worth two million dollars. She had been America’s first black millionairess.
*NAACP – National Association for the Advancement of Colored People