C.J. Walker was born a few years after the end of the Civil War and grew up on a cotton plantation in the state of Louisiana. This daughter of free slaves had an extraordinary destiny, making a fortune in hair care products and becoming the first female millionaire in the United States. Here is her incredible story.
Orphaned at the age of 7, her parents having succumbed to a yellow fever epidemic, she is forced to move in with her sister and husband. She worked as a domestic servant for four years until she met Moses McWilliams, her first husband, at the age of 14. From this union was born a daughter, Leila. McWilliams died three years later, and Sarah Breedlove moved with her daughter to St. Louis, Missouri.
Sara Breedlove Walker managed to become one of the greatest promoters of the successful business of her time and one of the first self-made millionaire women.
In the 1890s, Sara began to suffer from a scalp disease that caused her to lose her hair. She tried many “good-wife” remedies and bought commercially available products such as those from Annie Malone, another black woman entrepreneur. After changing her name to “Madam C.J. Walker”, she started her own business and began selling “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” a curative formula, which she said was revealed to her in a dream where a tall black man appeared to her and gave her a formula to treat baldness.
In 1905, she developed products for black women’s hair and scalp and realized that it was what black women wanted to help them take care of their hair and promote its growth; selling them door-to-door, while she continued to work as a cook and washerwoman. After marrying journalist Charles J. Walker in 1906, she soon renamed the “Walker Method of Hair Care” The Society of Mrs. C.J. Walker, a name she felt was more attractive and dignified.
She was mistakenly given the straightening comb.
Mrs. Walker was a true businesswoman. Her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, and her daughter Leila had the leading roles in the growth and daily operations of the business. In September 1906 Mrs. Walker and her husband toured the country to promote their products and train representatives while Leila set up a mail order operation in Denver. From 1908 to 1910 they ran a beauty school, the Lelia College for Walker Hair Culturists in Pittsburgh. In 1910 they set up central operations in Indianapolis, then the largest commodity factory in the country, to use the city’s access to eight major railroads. At this level of success, Mrs. Walker collected the main keys to running the Company, and she and her husband divorced.
She became an inspiration to many black women. CJ Walker because Recognized for her wealth and success, she gave lectures to promote her products, which inspired other women to enter the business. She has lectured on black issues sponsored by powerful black institutions. She encouraged black Americans in favor of World War I.
After the bloody interracial riot in East St. Louis in July 1917, Mrs. Walker devoted herself to showing that this was a federal cemetery. In 1918 she was the main speaker for many of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) groups and campaigned for anti-lynching efforts throughout the Midwest and East. Later that summer she was honored by the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) for her greatest contribution to saving the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. She gave large sums of money to NACCP for its campaign against lynching and later in her life she encouraged black schools, associations, individuals, orphanages, retirement homes, as well as YWCA and YMCA.
Mrs. Walker’s home, Villa LewaroVilla Lewaro, was built in August 1918 in Irvington on the Hudson River in New York. Her neighbors were industrialists such as Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her large property served not only as her home but also as a conference center for summits reserved for racial leaders to discuss current issues.