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Madam C.J. Walker: The first self-made black female millionaire

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by Matiara Huff

Madam C.J. Walker was born as Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. She was the second oldest of six kids. Both of her parents and her older sister were born slaves, but she was born just after the emancipation proclamation. By the age of seven, she was orphaned and living with her older sister and brother-in-law. Then, by age 14 she was married to Moses McWilliams, possibly too escape her brother-in-law’s mistreatment. In 1887, when she was 20, her husband died and she was left to raise her two-year-old daughter Lelia McWilliams. Breedlove married two more times after that, but both ended in divorce. However, her last husband Charles Joseph Walker, who she married in 1906, was a part of her rise to recognition, which is why she changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker and her daughter changed her name to A’Lelia Walker.

By Scurlock Studio (Washington, D.C.) (photographers). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Walker began working in the hair industry in 1888 when her and her daughter moved to St. Louis to live and work with her brothers in a barber shop as a washerwomen. During this time, she earned just over a dollar a day and yearned to be educated and provide a formal education for her daughter. She learned about hair-care from her brothers, then took a job as a sales agent for Annie Turnbo Malone, an African American hair-care entrepreneur and owner of the Poro Company. Walker worked  while developing her own line of products.

As her business grew, Walker began teaching other black women to groom and style their own hair. This grew into a beauty parlor and Lelia College to train “Hair Culturist” where some of them were offered a job as “Beauty Culturist”. By 1917, Walker trained almost 20,000 women and had employed several thousand. “In addition to training in sales and grooming, Walker showed other black women how to budget, build their own businesses, and encouraged them to become financially independent. In 1917, inspired by the model of the National Association of Colored Women…” By the 1920s Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, had expanded outside of the US to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica.

At the time of her death, Madam C.J. Walker was considered the wealthiest black person in America. Today she is well known as the first self-made black female millionaire.