Madam C.J. Walker: 

The First Black Woman Millionaire in the US

In the 20th century, beauty mogul Madam CJ Walker became the first black woman millionaire in America. With a fortune totaling one million dollars, her rise to fame and fortune during the early 1900’s was unseen for a minority. She inspired a generation of Black women to pursue a career in the hair industry and influenced them to innovate by inventing their own products and building their own empires.
Madam C.J. Walker

Who Was Madam C.J. Walker?

Madam CJ Walker was born in December of 1867 as Sarah Breedlove, near Delta, Louisiana. Breedlove was the first child of five other siblings and was born after slavery was abolished. At only the age of seven, Sarah was orphaned and sent to live with an older sister in Vicksburg, Mississippi where she endured abuse at the hands of her sister’s husband. 

Sarah was married at age 14 to Moses McWilliams, and together they had one daughter – A’Lelia McWilliams. After her husband’s death in 1887, she remarried in 1894 to Joe Davis, before divorcing him in 1903. Three years later, she married Charles James Walker, which is where she got the name Madam CJ Walker.

Working For $1.50 Per Day

After moving to St. Louis, Walker worked as a washerwoman, earning less than $1.50 a day. While she worked, she began to consider what her future would  become as she aged and started to suffer from back stiffness and other physical limitations. While also suffering from hair loss, Walker began to devise a master plan.

Shortly after, she met fellow Black woman Annie Malone, an entrepreneur who sold hair care products. Madam went from using Annie’s “Wonderful Hair Grower” to becoming an independent agent and selling Annie’s products to Black women all over the country. 

During this time, and between 1883 and 1913, about 10,000-40,000 Black-owned businesses launched in a time where economic mobility was uncommon for Black folks.

Starting the Madam CJ Walker Company

Walker first developed her own hair care products for Black women who suffered from scalp conditions in 1905. Just like her customers, Walker had experienced the unique hair challenges that African-American women faced and was now on a mission to solve them. Thus, the Madam CJ Walker Company was started.

Two years later in 1908, she opened a beauty school and factory in Pittsburgh, PA that she named after her daughter. In 1910, she relocated her headquarters to Indianapolis, Indiana because it was close to the railroads and had a significant Black population. This distribution point would be influential in her efforts to reach even more customers around the country. At the height of production, the Madam CJ Walker Company employed over three thousand people, including staff who sold her products door-to-door.


Aside from the success of her business, Walker was also known for her activism and philanthropy.  She donated much of her fortune to educational causes and Black charities, established scholarships at Tuskegee Institute, and donated to the NAACP, the Black YMCA, and other organizations that touted the advancement of Black people.

A Lasting Legacy

In 1919, Walker passed away at her Irvington-on-Hudson home in New York from complications of kidney failure and hypertension at age 51. At the time of her death, her net worth was estimated to be between a half million and one million dollars. Walker is remembered for being a pioneer in the Black beauty business, worth an estimated 2.5 billion dollars today. 

Netflix released a film called Self-Made in 2020 that starred Octavia Butler, to portray the life and experiences of Walker. In 2022, Beauty brand Unilever launched a beauty campaign with 11 new products inspired by Walker. The beauty line, Madam by Madam C.J. Walker, is available at Walmart stores. 

Walker’s legacy is also maintained by her great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist, historian, and author who has published various books on the subject of her grandmother and great-grandmother.

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