Seven Brilliant Black Inventors You Never Learned About In History Class

Published September 29, 2020

Madam C.J. Walker: Beauty Pioneer And America’s “First Black Woman Millionaire”

Madam Cj Walker

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Madam C.J. Walker was one of the first Black female millionaires in the United States.

Madam C.J. Walker’s rags-to-riches story began with a rocky start. Born Sarah Breedlove on Dec. 23, 1867, in Delta, Louisiana, Walker’s parents were former slaves-turned-sharecroppers after the Civil War. She was the first member of her family to be born as a free Black person.

But her status as a free-born was still full of struggles. Madam C.J. Walker grew up an orphan working in the cotton fields after her parents died when she was just seven years old. And she was forced to move in with her sister and her abusive brother-in-law.

At age 14, she married her first husband, Moses McWilliams, partly to escape her hard life. But she soon found herself widowed with a child after her husband died in 1887. So she packed her bags and moved her daughter, Lelia, to St. Louis, Missouri, where her brothers were.

Walker married for the second time to John Davis. But that marriage also fell apart due to Davis’ alleged abuse. Still, Walker persevered, working long hours as a laundress for far wealthier people.

“I did washing for families in St. Louis, and saved enough… to put my little girl in a school in Knoxville, Tennessee,” the entrepreneur said years later.

Madam Cj Walker Products

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Her beauty company continues to sell products over a century after her death.

Being exposed to harsh detergents for long hours while at work, Madam C.J. Walker experienced hair loss. So she turned to a beauty product called “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower” that was created by another Black woman beauty entrepreneur, Annie Turbo Malone. Walker quit her washer job and worked for Malone for a time as a salesperson.

Later, having learned enough during her time with Malone, Walker moved to Denver, Colorado, where she set up her own beauty line developed around her signature product, “Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” She met her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, after which she adopted the name Madam C.J. Walker. Her business flourished and it wasn’t long before she amassed a multimillion-dollar fortune.

But Madam C.J. Walker was not only rich, she was also a known philanthropist. She made generous donations to charities and non-profits that worked to support the Black community throughout her lifetime.

Just before she died in 1919, she bequeathed two-thirds of her company’s future net profits to charity in addition to $100,000 to various orphanages, individuals, and educational institutions for youths.

Natasha Ishak
Natasha Ishak is a staff writer at All That's Interesting.