Madam CJ Walker was one of the first African American entrepreneurs. This article is about her journey from rags to riches, and how she accomplished this amazing feat. It tells the story of her poor background, her invention of a hair tonic, and the establishment of her company. The article also discusses her philanthropy and her political causes.

Americans celebrated the birthday of the great entrepreneur Madam CJ Walker on December 23. This amazing woman invented a hair tonic, established a huge hair and beauty business and became the first African-American woman millionaire. She also helped several African-American causes.

Madam CJ Walker managed to do all this despite coming from a poor and bleak background.  Her original name was Sarah Breedlove, and she was born in 1867 in Louisiana two years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed her parents from slavery.  Her parents, who worked as sharecroppers, unfortunately died when Breedlove was only six. After this, the little girl moved to Vicksburg to live with her sister. She worked in the cotton fields, and she helped with the housework. Although Breedlove went to school, she never finished her high school education.

A tough early life

Breedlove married Moses McWilliams when she was only 14, because she wanted to escape from her abusive brother-in-law.  She had her only daughter A’Lelia at 17. She then had to cope with her husband’s death when she was only 20. She was left poor and alone, with a young daughter to raise.

The young woman then moved to St Louis, where she worked as a cook and a laundress. Afterwards, she said that she was promoted from the ‘wash tub’ to the ‘cook kitchen’. Breedlove worked hard, so she earned enough money to pay for her daughter to attend Knoxville College. This gave Breedlove a belief in the importance of hard work which she never lost.

Invention of a Hair tonic/restorer

The ambitious African-American seized her big chance when, aged 37, she invented a hair tonic. When Breedlove’s hair began to fall out due to severe dandruff and a nasty scalp disease, she became desperate to cure her problem. One night Breedlove dreamed that she invented a hair formula that restored her hair. She began mixing ingredients, and she soon made a treatment that worked. Her four brothers were barbers, so Breedlove already knew a little bit about hair products.

Breedlove decided to begin selling her hair tonic and the other beauty products that she’d made, so she left St Louis with only $1.50 in her pocket, and started travelling through the South and the Deep South with an aggressive marketing strategy. She sold her products door to door, gave talks about them and demonstrated them to prospective customers. Her merchandise soon became popular. She remarked later that ‘she had to make her own living and her own opportunity’, and she advised other ambitious people to follow in her footsteps.

After she married Charles Joseph Walker in 1906, Breedlove called herself Madam CJ Walker, and she named her hair restorer “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower”.  She then established the Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company to make and sell her hair and beauty products. Madam Walker built a factory, established beauty salons and started beauty schools to educate her workers. She eventually employed over 3,000 African-American men and women.  She gave these young people important opportunities. Usually, African-Americans were only employed as poorly-paid sharecroppers or servants. If they worked for Madam Walker, they could earn more money, and they could be promoted to higher positions in the company. Madam Walker achieved her goal of providing employment for hundreds of women of her race.

Madam Walker also held several business meetings at which she awarded her top sellers. Her Madam
CJ Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention in Philadelphia in 1917 was probably one of the first national meetings of businesswomen in America. Here, she encouraged her agents to become politically active as well as successful in business.  She told the women at the convention to ‘protest against wrong and injustice’.


Madam C.J. Walker’S theatre in Indianapolis. This theatre, a popular cultural centre, still thrives today

Political and social activities

The successful entrepreneur suffered from discrimination herself, because she was an African-American. On one occasion, she discovered that she had paid twice the amount for her movie ticket than a white customer. This made her so angry that she decided to open her own theatre in Indianapolis. This theatre, a popular cultural centre, still thrives today.

Madam CJ Walker was a great philanthropist, and she has been called ‘the first Oprah Winfrey’. She donated a large amount of money to the first ‘coloured’ YMCA in Indianapolis, and she contributed funds to the establishment of homes for the aged and needy. She also funded scholarships for African-Americans, and she gave money to a private secondary school.

She also participated in political campaigns. These included the fight to end lynching and the promotion of the inclusion of African-Americans in the post-World War One peace discussions. She also joined the executive committee of the Silent Protest Parade, joining the July 1917 public demonstration in which more than 8,000 African Americans marched up Fifth Avenue to protest an East St Louis riot in which 39 black men, women, and children died. She also visited the White House with a group of Harlem leaders to urge President Woodrow Wilson to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime, and she contributed a large amount of money to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s anti-lynching fund.

Madam Walker eventually moved to Irvington, New York. Here Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect, designed a grand Italianate villa for her which cost about $250,000.00, a fortune at the time. She filled the large villa with beautiful paintings, cut-glass chandeliers and marble statuary. The house, Villa Lewaro, is now a convalescent home for the aged, and it is also a National Historic Landmark.

The famous entrepreneur died in 1919 when she was only 51 from kidney disease and other complications caused by hypertension.  She wrote in her will that she always wanted a woman to head her company.

Madam C.J. Walker in an early automobile

Madam C.J. Walker in an early automobile