The True Story Of Madam C.J. Walker, One Of America’s First Black Female Millionaires

Published November 6, 2017
Updated February 17, 2020
Published November 6, 2017
Updated February 17, 2020

Born into a family of former slaves, Madam C.J. Walker would later become one of the most successful entrepreneurs of early 20th-century America.

Madam Cj Walker

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesMadam C.J. Walker, previously Sarah Breedlove, was one of the first black female millionaires in America.

Madam C.J. Walker was one of the wealthiest self-made women in America during the early 20th century. Her journey was a rags-to-riches story: Walker went from being a single mother who washed clothes to make ends meet to becoming a successful entrepreneur.

This is the remarkable true story of Madam C.J. Walker, one of America’s first black female millionaires.

Madam C.J. Walker’s Early Life

Madam Walker Driving

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty ImagesMadam C.J. Walker made her fortune creating a hair care line specifically geared toward African American women.

Before she became a wealthy businesswoman, Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on Dec. 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. Her parents Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove were former slaves who became sharecroppers after the Civil War.

As one of six children, Walker’s birth was significant — unlike her parents and her siblings who had been enslaved, she was the first in her immediate family to be born a free black person.

However, economic and racial upheavals in the aftermath of the war meant the freeborn child grew up in a world of racial unrest.

A group of white vigilantes called the “Knights of the White Camelia” terrorized the black residents of Louisiana to support white control of the government and to uphold white supremacy.

Wonderful Hair Grower By Cj Walker

Madam Walker Family Archives/A’Lelia BundlesMadam Walker’s line was developed around her product, “Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.”

Walker’s parents tried to shield their children from the violence around them and, for the most part, succeeded. According to childhood friend Celeste Hawkins, the future Madam C.J. Walker was an “open-faced good gal.” The two often enjoyed neighborhood picnics and fish fry events.

Sadly, by the time Walker turned seven, both of her parents had died. She was forced to move in with her sister and her abusive brother-in-law. After some time working in the cotton fields, young Madam C.J. Walker married Moses McWilliams, partly as a way to escape the abuse at her sister’s house. She was only 14.

In 1887, Walker found herself widowed with a two-year-old to feed and no money. Desperate, the young mother packed her bags and took her daughter, Lelia, to St. Louis, Missouri, where her brothers were.

The Making Of Madam Walker

Cj Walker Beauty Shop

Raymond Boyd/Getty ImagesMadam C.J. Walker’s legacy remains steadfast a century after her death.

In St. Louis, things were slightly better. The future Madam C.J. Walker found work as a laundress and cook. She also joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which boasted an influential congregation.

The struggling mother then met her second husband John Davis, but their marriage slowly fell apart due to his alleged abuse. On top of that, she dealt with the pressure of being the main breadwinner for her family. Nevertheless, she continued to work hard to give her daughter a better life.

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

Alelia Bundles

Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty ImagesMadam C.J. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles carries on her legacy today.

As she worked long hours, Walker began to notice that she was experiencing hair loss. During the early 1900s, many poor Americans did not have indoor plumbing, which made bathing a luxury.

Since Walker washed her hair so infrequently, it was especially vulnerable to hazards like pollution and harmful bacteria.

It wasn’t until 1904 that her life would take a dramatic turn. Walker began using a product called “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower” by another historical black female entrepreneur, Annie Turbo Malone. Impressed with the formula and eager to learn more about it, she soon became one of Malone’s sales agents.

After Walker gained enough know-how to create hair-care products, she decided to develop her own line.

So a year later, the budding entrepreneur moved to Denver. There she met her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, or C.J. Walker. After marrying him, she picked up his last name and adopted the nickname Madam C.J. Walker. Her new chapter was about to begin.

Madam Walker’s Beauty Empire

Walker Beauty Culture

Craig Barritt/Getty Images for EssenceHer company later released “The Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture” product.

Armed with her tenacity, beauty education, and $1.25, Madam C.J. Walker launched her own line of hair products developed around her signature product, “Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.”

She sold her products door-to-door, teaching black women how to style and care for their locks. Before long, Walker began a mail-order operation, which gradually expanded into a true empire.

After she divorced her third husband, Walker moved to Indianapolis, Indiana in 1910, where she built a factory for her Walker Manufacturing Company. She also established a salon and a beauty school to train her sales agents.

Along with investing in her brand, she also invested in her black workforce. She ultimately employed about 40,000 African American employees.

Cj Walker At Irvington Mansion

Wikimedia CommonsThe Madam’s estate in upstate New York, known as the Irvington Mansion.

Madam C.J. Walker soon earned a reputation as one of the country’s few successful female entrepreneurs of the 20th century. As her wealth increased, so did her generosity and philanthropy.

When she pledged $1,000 to fund a new YMCA center within the city’s black community, the donation became a symbol of black excellence, especially at a time when such wealth for an African American was unheard of.

A surprising C.J. Walker fact is that not everyone supported her. Booker T. Washington was one of those who initially ignored her success.

When he tried to deny her a chance to speak at the prestigious National Negro Business League convention in 1912, Madam C.J. Walker responded with aplomb:

“Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face. I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the 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!”

The following year, Washington invited Madam C.J. Walker as one of the convention’s keynote speakers.

The Weight Of Her Legacy

Octavia Spencer As Cj Walker

Netflix In Netflix’s Self Made, Madam C.J. Walker is played by actress Octavia Spencer.

Madam C.J. Walker was well known for her philanthropic and political outreach. She covered tuition for six African American students at the elite Tuskegee Institute and was active in the anti-lynching movement.

In 1917, the female entrepreneur held the Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention in Philadelphia, which drew 200 agents and became one of the first national gatherings of American women for business.

Just prior to dying of kidney failure at the age of 51 in 1919, Madam C.J. Walker revised her will, bequeathing two-thirds of her company’s future net profits to charity, as well as $100,000 to various orphanages, individuals, and educational institutions for youths.

Madam C.J. Walker’s incredible life story of resilience, ambition, and generosity are carried on by her great-great-granddaughter A’Leila Bundles, who continues to uplift her ancestor’s legacy.

Her life story will be adapted onto the small screen starring Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer in Netflix’s four-part limited series Self Made, set to be released on March 20, 2020.

It’s no surprise why Walker’s success has gone down in history. But whenever she was asked about the secret behind success, she’d say:

“There is no royal flower-strewn path to success, and if there is, I have not found it, for whatever success I have attained has been the result of much hard work and many sleepless nights. I got my start by giving myself a start. So don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. You have to get up and make them for yourselves!”

Now that you’ve followed Madam C.J. Walker’s remarkable life, read the story of Charity Adams Earley, the highest-ranking African American female officer of World War II. Then, meet the Harlem Hellfighters, the overlooked African American heroes of World War I.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.