Sarah Breedlove’s parents were former slaves who sharecropped in the Louisiana Delta. They had died by the time she was seven years old, so Sarah was shifted from one family to the next until she went to live with her sister Louvina, and Louvina’s husband, Willie Powell.
Willie began abusing her, so she ran away and married Moses McWilliams when she was just fourteen years old. They had one daughter, Lelia, before McWilliams’ death.
Sarah worked hard as a laundrywoman to provide for herself and Lelia, and her daughter’s education. She joined the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she sang in the choir.
She was greatly influenced by some of the Christian women who were members of that church. At this time she developed a scalp ailment that caused her to start losing her hair. Sarah began experimenting with various ingredients to create products specifically for the hair of African American women.
In St. Louis, she met and married Charles Joseph (“C.J.”) Walker and began calling herself and her company Madam C.J. Walker. Mr. Walker was a newspaperman with a talent for marketing. He started placing advertisements for her hair products in African American newspapers throughout the United States. She was hired by Annie Turnbo Malone, a successful African
American haircare entrepreneur, as a commission agent in 1905. When her brother died, she moved to Denver, Colorado. After branching out with her own business, she and her husband toured various cities demonstrating the “Walker Method” of haircare using hot combs, brushing, and her special hair pomade. Madam C.J. Walker had a great vision for the growth of her company, but her husband disagreed. They divorced. However, he stayed on as a sales agent. One of his ideas was door-to-door marketing, which was very good for the growth of the business.
By 1906, the company had grown greatly. She brought on her daughter Lelia, (later A’Lelia Walker), who had just graduated from college. Lelia ran the business from the office while Madam Walker traveled throughout the US, Latin America, and the Caribbean to market her products and develop new ones. She also established a college to train women in how to use and sell the products. By 1910, she had 1,000 sales agents and moved Walker Manufacturing Company to Indianapolis, Indiana. The company continued growing.
After all the suffering, poverty, and hardship she had endured, Madam C.J. Walker was the first woman, Black or White, to become a millionaire based upon her own achievements.
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