Considered one of the 20th century's most successful women entrepreneurs, Madam C.J. Walker built her empire out of nothing. Her parents were former slaves, and she was orphaned at the age of 7.
Sarah Breedlove was born on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. She was one of six children; she had a sister, Louvenia, and four brothers: Alexander, James, Solomon, and Owen Jr. Her parents and elder siblings were slaves on Madison Parish plantation, owned by Robert W. Burney. She was the first child in her family born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Her mother died, possibly from cholera, in 1872. Her father remarried and died shortly afterward.
Sarah, orphaned at the age of six, moved in with her older sister and brother-in-law, Willie Powell. At the age of 14, she married Moses McWilliams to escape Powell's mistreatment, and three years later her daughter, Lelia McWilliams, was born. When Sarah was 20, her husband died, and Lelia was just 2 years old. Shortly afterward she moved to St. Louis where three of her brothers lived. They were all barbers at a local barbershop. She managed to get a job as a washer woman. She barely earned more than a dollar a day but was determined to make enough money so that her daughter would be able to receive a formal education.
In 1905, she created Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula. Walker had a personal connection to the product since she suffered from a scalp ailment that caused her to lose most of her hair.
She eventually expanded her business to Central America and the Caribbean. By 1917, Walker held one of the first national meetings of businesswomen in Philadelphia, the Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention. Walker's hard work and perseverance carved a path for women entrepreneurs, the African-American hair-care and cosmetics industry, and the African-American community as a whole.
Just before her death she pledged $5,000, which was equivalent to about $65,000 in today's dollars, to the NAACP's anti-lynching fund. Madam C. J. Walker died at Villa Lewaro on Sunday, May 25, 1919, from complications of hypertension. She was 51. In her will she directed two-thirds of future net profits of her estate to charity and bequeathing. At her death she was considered to be the wealthiest African-American woman in America.
According to Walker's New York Times obituary, "she said herself two years ago [in 1917] that she was not yet a millionaire, but hoped to be some time. Her daughter, A'Lelia Walker, became the president of the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.
I got my start by giving myself a start.
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.
I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.
One night I had a dream, and in that dream a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. I made up my mind I would begin to sell it.
I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavour to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race.
There is no royal flower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.
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