Madame C.J. Walker was a self-made businesswoman who created opportunities for herself and for other African American women at a time when both educational and career opportunities were limited. Walker was the first African-American woman to become a millionaire, and (according to the Guiness book of world records) the first woman to earn a million dollars through her own efforts. She was also a philanthropist and a tireless worker for several causes, including the end of lynching and equal rights for African American veterans.
Madame C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, on December 23, 1867. Her parents had been slaves, and became sharecroppers after the Civil War. Both of them died when Walker was seven years old. She moved to Vicksburg with her older sister Louvenia a few years later, but Louvenia’s husband was abusive, and Walker ran away and married when she was only 14 years old.
Walker had one daughter, Lelia, who was born in 1885 when Walker was 18 years old. Her first husband died at the hands of a lynch mob, and Walker went on to marry twice more.
Walker was an entrepreneur and an inventor. She created hair care products, first as a solution to her own hair loss and then for sale to others. She began by selling her products door to door, added a mail order business, and then opened a “hair culture” college. Among the 3,000 people employed by Walker’s company were tutors who helped Walker to get the education she had not been able to achieve when she was young.
Walker’s third husband, C.J. Walker, and her daughter Lelia worked with her in her business. Lelia, later known as A’Lelia, managed the mail order side of the business while her parents traveled in the U.S., South America, and the Carribean promoting the Walker products. In 15 years, Walker built an empire of cosmetics and beauty products, including an improved permanent wave machine developed in 1928 by a Walker employee, Majorie Joyner.
Walker’s goal was not only to improve her own life, but also to provide better jobs for other African American women, who at that time had limited job opportunities. She described her career path in this way: “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
Walker employed (and the company still employs) independent agents to sell the products directly to their friends and neighbors. Agents buy their stock at a deep discount, sell it at retail prices, and keep the difference as their commission. The company also offered sales training for agents. This arrangement allowed women to go into business for themselves without education, experience, or investment. At a time when many African American women saw domestic service as their only job opportunity, and unskilled workers of any ethnicity could expect to make less than $50 a month, Walker Agents could make $1,000 a month. By 1910, there were more than 1,000 Walker Agents.
In 1916, Walker built a 34 room house on the Hudson River and in 1917 she led a march of women to Washington to protest the segregation of the military. Just as she had used her business to help provide economic opportunities for African Americans, she used her wealth to provide educational opportunities for African Americans. She donated money to colleges that accepted African American students, gave scholarships, and supported young writers and artists. In 1919, when she died, Walker was widely known as an example not only of business and marketing skill, but also of social activism.
Madam Walker was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the National Cosmetology Hall of Fame and the National Direct Sales Hall of Fame. Her face was on a U.S. postage stamp, and she continues to be a source of inspiration.
“If I have accomplished anything in life, it is because I am willing to work hard,” said Walker. “Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
I just wanted to inform your readers of this very important fact – Madame C.J. Walker’s historic company still exists today and has never stopped manufacturing all of the original hair oils! Anyone who visits our website at http://www.madamewalker.net can view and purchase the full product line.
The website also contains valuable information about the stock / asset sale (including the ability to view the stock certificates) and Raymond Randolph’s purchase of the original Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1985 from the Walker Trustees in Indianapolis, Indiana and how the Randolph Family continues to keep Madame Walker’s “true” legacy alive.
To promote the entrepreneurial spirit that Madame Walker exemplified, the website provides individuals the opportunity to become a “Walker Agent” and sell Madame C.J. Walker products. By clicking on the “Find A Distributor” tab, you will see agents located in the United Kingdom, France, Bahamas, and the United States.
September 2011 marked the Centennial Anniversary of the incorporation of Madame C.J. Walker’s historic company – doing business today as Madame C.J. Walker Enterprises. On September 24th, 2011 we commemorated this event with the “Tracing the Footsteps of a Legacy” 100th Year Celebratory Walk. You can visit our website to view the Souvenir Program.
Due to our ownership of Madame’s historic company and the historical documents and memorabilia of the company, the Randolph Family can provide the most detailed and historically accurate information about Madame C.J. Walker and her company by calling toll free, 866-552-2838, by clicking on the “Frequently Asked Questions” FAQS tab of our website, or by going to the contact us page of our website.
Thank you, Angela, for adding this information. Teachers, what a great opportunity for further research!