Both of her parents were slaves and she was the first person in her family to be born free. Decades later, C.J. Walker would be the first female self-made millionaire in the United States.
When C.J. Walker, business mogul, entrepreneur, and America’s first female self-made millionaire addressed the crowd at the annual gathering of the National Negro Business League in 1912, she started off by reminding everyone there of her roots.
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South,” she said from the convention floor. “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.”
For many, this was the first they had heard of the famous C.J. Walker’s origins. It came as a surprise that a woman with such business prowess should come from such a humble beginning.
But, she truly did.
Born in 1867 as Sarah Breedlove, C.J. Walker was the first member of her family born free.
Until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed four years prior, her entire family had been enslaved on Robert W. Burney’s Madison Parish plantation, like most other black people living in Louisiana at the time.
However, despite being born free, her freedom didn’t last long. By the time she was seven years old, both of her parents had died, and she was forced to move in with her sister and her husband.
For four years she worked as a domestic servant until she met her first husband at 14 years old. She had a daughter, Leila, before her husband died just five years into their marriage.
In 1888, C.J. Walker moved to St. Louis, Missouri.
She remarried in 1894, but after ten years left him to move to Denver, Colorado. She began working as a laundress for a dollar a day but worked hard to pay for her daughter’s education.
During her time as a laundress, he began to notice that, like many other black women in the field, she was experiencing dandruff, scalp ailments and skin disorders due to the harsh chemicals that were used at the time to wash clothing and hair.
Walker took the issue to her brothers, who were barbers in St. Louis. They introduced her to Annie Turnbo Malone, an African American hair-care entrepreneur, who taught her about hair and hair products. Eventually, she had enough know-how to create her own line of products specifically designed for black women.
In 1905, she moved to Denver to create her own hair-care business.
There, in 1906, she met her third and final husband, Charles Joseph Walker, and came to be known as Madame C.J. Walker. When the two divorced six years later, she kept the name and began to use it for her brand.
She sold her products, like Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, door to door, teaching black women how to grow and style their hair.
Before long, she had grown her business so much that she started up a mail order operation out of Denver. She eventually opened up the Leila College, named for her daughter, where she trained hair care professionals. Eventually, they opened shops in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Harlem.
Between 1911 and 1919, Walker employed thousands of women as sales agents, selling products out of the shop as well as door to door. They worked across the United States and even in the Caribbean, creating one of the largest start-up businesses of the time.
As well as hair care, Walker focused on how to grow a business, teaching women how to budget and become financially independent. In 1917, she held a conference in Philadelphia, urging women to come and learn business and economic skills.
The conference had over 200 attendees and became the first national gathering of women entrepreneurs.
Eventually, Walker’s daughter took over the day to day tasks of the company, and Walker turned mostly to activism, donating over $100,000 to various orphanages, institutions, and causes.
When she died in 1919, her will stated that two-thirds of all of her future profits be donated to charity.
In 1993, Walker was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame as a lasting tribute to her legacy.