On Madam C.J. Walker


by Theresa Franklin

Madame CJ Walker StampA single mother created her own opportunity during a time period when there were none available to her. At a time when most black people lacked formal education, worked backbreaking jobs, and received pittance for their labor, this amazing woman was able to see beyond the struggle and find incredible success. She became the richest woman in the United States of America in the early 1900's, at a time when many black people were unemployed or underemployed. Sarah Breedlove was her name, but most people knew her as Madam C.J. Walker.

Sarah Breedlove was born on December 23, 1867 in a one-room cabin, on a cotton plantation in Delta, Louisiana. Sarah's parents were both freed slaves who worked as sharecroppers on a plantation. Sarah became an orphan at the tender age of 7 and worked with her sister in a cotton field picking cotton. At the early age of 14, she got married. However, she became a widow and single mother at the age of 19. Sarah lost her husband in a tragic accident, and was left alone to raise her daughter Leila. A few years later she remarried and experienced an abusive relationship in that marriage. Sarah was a proud and strong black woman who chose not to tolerate her husband's abuse. So leaving her second husband, she once again found herself in the precarious position of a single mother raising her young daughter.

Sarah worked very hard, doing menial jobs to provide an education, and a better life for her daughter. In her mid-thirties she found herself still working long hours each day, seven days a week. She worked as a laundrywoman washing and ironing people's clothes, earning just $1.50 a week. She was working so hard she did not have the time to take care of herself physically and this bothered her. For one thing her hands became rough and chapped and she also suffered terribly from dried scalp, losing her hair in the process. One day as she was bent over scrubbing clothes in a wooden tub, she wondered what she would do when she inevitably got older and could no longer work. She had trouble seeing how she could better her conditions.

It was 1904, when Sarah decided to attend the National Association of Colored Women seminar, at the World's Fair in St. Louis. She listened to Margaret Murray Washington's speech. Mrs. Washington was the wife of Booker T. Washington, an educator, and the founder and Principal of the Normal School (known today as the Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee, Alabama. Sarah was extremely impressed by Mrs. Washington's appearance. She admired the way Mrs. Washington was well groomed and her hair was so shiny and healthy looking. Sarah was in awe with the way the woman spoke with such confidence. As Sarah left the fair, she made the decision that she was going to do something better than washing clothes for other people.

Sarah continued to experience hair loss. On mornings when she woke up, she would find hair on her pillow. Terrified of becoming bald, she tried many products that were made for black women's hair, including products made by a black entrepreneur called Annie Malone. But none of the products helped her hair grow. As her hair condition worsened, she prayed to God to provide her with some inspiration to help her troubled hair. One night her prayers were finally answered in a dream. A black man appeared in her dream and instructed her to obtain certain ingredients in order to mix them for her hair. Sarah obtained the ingredients, and with the assistants of a local pharmacist (who was also her employer); she developed hair-conditioning products that could be used with a hot comb to straighten hair. She tested the product on her hair and within a few weeks her hair had grown. Sarah tried the hair product on her daughter's and her neighbors' hair and to her amazement their hair also grew. It was at that moment that Sarah decided to sell the products to other black women. She realized that this was an opportunity to make a decent living.

Sarah officially started her business in 1906, when she was married to her third husband Charles Joseph (C.J.) Walker. She used her husband's name C.J. Walker for the company's name. She added Madam because it had a regal sound to it. Mr. Walker was a sales agent for a St. Louis newspaper. Therefore, he contributed his advertising and promotional skills to the company. The company flourished even when her husband had strong doubts about the success of the business. The company continued to grow at a rapid speed. Sarah then decided she would expand the business, but her husband was opposed to her plans for growth. He opined that it would be unwise to take such big risks, and was content with the current operation of the business at that time. Their differences caused a rift in the marriage, and Sarah decided to divorce Mr. Walker in 1912. Although they were divorced, Mr. Walker continued to work for the company selling Madam CJ Walker's products.

Members in the black community, especially the black ministers in the local churches criticized Sarah. They criticized her for promoting a white woman's look, because her product provided a way for black women to wear their hair long and straight. She was attacked many times from the pulpits, as many ministers preached that if God wanted black people to have straight hair, he would of bestowed it upon them.

Sarah was determined to continue her business, regardless of the negative remarks she had received from her people. She traveled through out the states selling her products from door to door. She hired the most educated and experienced people, and included her daughter and relatives to operate the company while she was on the road selling. She developed a sales team comprised of mostly black women. In 1913 the Walker's company employed twenty thousand agents in the United States, Central America and the Caribbean. Madam CJ Walker Company's sales agents earned up to $25 a week, far better that the $2 a week that many had earned as domestic workers.

Although Sarah became a successful and wealthy woman, she did not forget her people even when some were unkind to her. She donated money to black organizations like the NAACP, YMCA, other organizations, and individuals. Her last days were spent in her mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. Sarah died on May 25, 1919 at the age of fifty-one. Her daughter Leila inherited the company, and the company was passed on to the third generation. In 1985 Madam CJ Walker Company was sold to an Indianapolis businessman called Ray Randolph.

May 2005


Visions of Beauty Madame CJ WalkerLasky, Kathryn. Vision of Beauty: the story of Sarah Breedlove Walker. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2000

Perry Bundles, A'Lelia. On Her Own Ground: the life & times of Madam C.J. Walker. Scribner, 2001

Yannuzzi, Della A. Madam C.J. Walker: self-made businesswoman. Berkely Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2000


See http://madamcjwalker.com/

Copyright © 2005 Heritage On Tour Promotion. All rights reserved. Toronto, Ontario Canada
Reprinted with permission from North Star Journal - http://www.readblackhistory.com/


back to top

All material contained within this website is property of the respective owners and cannot be used in any form without prior consent. If you use material from this web site you accept that you will be liable to all costs arising from its use.



International Womens Month was founded and is produced by Wellplaced Consultancy | All material is copyrighted - see disclaimer
Designed & maintained by SP Internet Consultancy