Women’s History Month: Madam CJ Walker, America’s first woman to become a self-made millionaire

Darvin Nelson, Features Editor

Madam CJ Walker grew her business by creating hair products, specifically for African-Americans. Within two years of selling products, she was making the equivalent of $150,000 a year.  According to the Guinness World Records, she was considered to be the first woman “to earn a personal fortune of over $1,000,000” as her net-worth exceeded that limit at the time of her death.

Madam CJ Walker was born with the name Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana.  She was her parents’ fifth child, and the first in her family to be born free. 

Courtesy of PBS and Madam Walker Family Archives.

Walker’s parents, Owen and Minerva, died when she was seven, and at age 14 she married Moses McWilliams and gave birth to a daughter in 1885. A few years later, her husband passed and she moved to St. Louis, Missouri where her brothers had become barbers and found work as a washwoman.  In St. Louis, she met her second husband Charles J. Walker who worked in advertising.

After suffering a scalp condition in the late 1800s, Walker began to experiment with remedies and store products in an attempt to improve her scalp issues. 

Her husband helped her make advertisements for her products as they traveled across the south promoting her products and gave demonstrations involving the “Walker Method” with brushing techniques, a pomade formula, and heated comb use. She sold products, such as Wonderful Hair Grower, Glossine and Vegetable Shampoo. 

Courtesy of History.com.

According to History.com, “While other products for black hair (largely manufactured by white businesses) were on the market, she differentiated hers by emphasizing its attention to the health of the women who would use it. She sold her homemade products directly to black women, using a personal approach that won her loyal customers.”

By 1908, Walker opened a beauty school and factory in Pittsburgh, Pennslyvania. Two years later, she moved her production to Indianapolis, Indiana. The Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company had become fiercely successful, with profits that were the modern-day equivalent of several million dollars. By 1917, she built a 32-room mansion in Westchester County, New York named “Villa Lewaro”.

At only 51 years old, Walker later died from Hypertension on May 25, 1919. She was buried in the Bronx, New York City and left money for her daughter and many charities.

A Netflix Original, “Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker,” will premiere on March 20 this year starring Octavia Spencer. The limited series will take viewers through Walker’s process from rags to riches and how she expanded her business.

Courtesy of Netflix and IMBD.

Madam CJ Walker is an accomplished cosmetics pioneer who helped many people with her successful products. She built an inspiring hair-care empire that has established her in history as America’s first female millionaire.


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