Madam C.J. Walker: An Original Rags to Riches American Story

Madam C.J. Walker, is well known as the woman whom created specialized hair products for African-American hair and was one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire and philanthropist.

Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana, to her parents Owen and Minerva Breedlove, who were recently freed slaves.
Sarah, who was their fifth child, was the first in her family to be free-born.

After the death of her parents when Sarah was just a little girl of 7, she moved in with her sister and brother- in- law to work the cotton fields as a picker. At age 14, to escape both her oppressive working environment and the frequent mistreatment she endured at the hands of her brother-in-law, Sarah married a man named Moses McWilliams. They had a daughter, A’Leila McWilliams (who later would change her name to A’Leila Walker). Sarah gave birth to A’Leila on June 6, 1885, when she was 18 years old. Moses McWilliams passed away when A’Leila was only 2 years old.


Needing to again move on Sarah and A’Lelia moved to St. Louis, where Sarah’s brothers had established themselves as barbers. There, Sarah found work as a washerwoman, earning $1.50 a day—enough to send her daughter to the city’s public schools which she herself also attened when she could at night. A’Lelia grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and attended Knoxville College in Tennessee before entering the family business.

“I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”-Madam CJ Walker

While in St. Louis, Breedlove met her second husband Charles J. Walker, who worked in advertising and would later help promote her hair care business. Due to a scalp condition Sarah started to lose her hair and started playing around with ways to help heal her scalp and grow her hair. She started selling her product door to door and with the help of her husband created successful ad campaigns and demonstrations which increased the demand and sales to the point of where she had over 3000 employees working door to door under her guidance.

Her savvy business acumen led her to be one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire. When Walkers wealth grew, she bought a Manhattan townhouse and a country estate in upstate New York, but she also lavished money on scholarships, African-American charities and institutions such as the black YMCA and the NAACP.  She passed away in 1919 but the company’s headquarters, the Walker Building, was not finished until 1927. It remains in Indianapolis as of 2015.


A’Lelia Walker became president of her mother’s company in 1919 and remained in that position until her death in August 1931.

Madam C. J. Walkers legacy of self made success, has inspired women to not only reach for an create their own opportunities but to also lend a hand to those who need our assistance. She is proof that there are no limits to the power of our minds and determination. Success is created by those willing to pursue it.

“I want you to understand that your first duty is to humanity. I want others to look at us and see that we care not just about ourselves but about others.”-Madam CJ Walker.



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