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How 'Madam Walker' Became One of America's First African-American Millionaires

  • Chris Simkins

Madam C.J. Walker embodies the quintessential American success story, as someone who fought seemingly insurmountable odds to become one of the 20th century's most successful self-made woman entrepreneurs.

The daughter of former slaves, Walker built a cosmetics empire selling hair care and beauty products for African-American women. By the time she died at age 51, she was among the first African-American millionaires in the United States. It was just over 50 years after the end of slavery.

"She was a woman who provided employment for thousands of women and she used her money and her influence as a philanthropist and a political activist," said A'Lelia Bundles, who speaks glowingly of her famous great-great grandmother.

Madam C.J. Walker and her daughter A'Lelia Walker in their car.
Madam C.J. Walker and her daughter A'Lelia Walker in their car.

Bundles, a former television news executive and biographer, spent decades researching the life of her famous ancestor.

"She really embodies the dream, the American dream, with opportunity for everyone, with the ability to take your God-given talents and to educate yourself and then to do something for others,” said Bundles.

Unfortunate upbringing

Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, in 1867, was orphaned at age 7 and married at 14, but her husband died a few years later, according to Bundles.

"So, there were all of these blows, all of these things were stacked against her, but somehow she had such a survival instinct, soaking up everything she saw around her" she said.

Self-made millionaire

Following her experience as a sales agent for Annie Malone’s black hair care business, Poro, Walker decided to create her own line of hair care products.

She saw the opportunity as a means of providing for her family, primarily her daughter A’Lelia.

An image of Madam C.J. Walker on the seal of one of her products.
An image of Madam C.J. Walker on the seal of one of her products.

“Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower,” sold in homes and churches, helped catapult her business. Bundles says Walker traveled across the country, knowing that a black woman somewhere would be in need of her hair care line.

"Walker's experiences enabled the self-made businesswoman to develop key marketing skills that would drive her future success," she said.

As part of her marketing strategy, Walker utilized her own image as the before and after for her advertisements, while also being on the seal of the products. One would also find her advertisements in black-owned newspapers.

Additionally, she printed business cards, fliers, and created various packaging to get her name out in black communities across America. Walker was known for giving her customers more than hair products, but offering them a lifestyle, according to Bundles.

Her hard work paid off. In May 1918, Walker moved into her brand new estate outside New York City. This caused surprise and dismay among her white neighbors but did not deter Walker.

Empowering African American women

Walker used her fortune to hire women at all levels of her company. Bundles says Walker wanted them to know that their roles would be as leaders in their community.

She held the first national convention of her sales agents in 1917.

According to Bundles, in Walker's keynote speech, the businesswoman said, "I want you as Walker Agents to show the world that you care not just about yourself but about others."

At the end of the convention, the women sent a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime.

"She wanted them to speak up; she wanted them to use their power and their influence and their money to make a difference,” Bundles said.

Working for Walker provided the women a means to provide for their family and to be economically independent.

Bundles notes a former worker once said, "'C.J. Walker made it possible for a black woman to make more money in a day than she could in a month working in somebody’s kitchen.' So, this was really showing women, who would have been sharecroppers and maids and laundresses, how they could support their families and be their own bosses."

Madam C.J. Walker with Booker T. Washington and other men at the opening of a YMCA building in 1913.
Madam C.J. Walker with Booker T. Washington and other men at the opening of a YMCA building in 1913.

Maintaining Walker's legacy

When Madam C.J. Walker died in 1919, she left tens of thousands of dollars to charitable organizations and schools, leaving behind a legacy of political activism while establishing a pattern of corporate giving.

Bundles is committed to maintaining Walker's legacy.

"For all my life, I’ve been trying to tell Madam’s story and really it's a labor of love just to make sure people know about her and the empowerment she gave to other women," Bundles said. "Madam Walker’s legacy lives in her philanthropy as well as in an amazing line of hair care products.”

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