1867, Delta, LA
1919, Irvington-on-Hudson, NY
Upon her retirement Walker built an Italianate villa at Irvington-on-the-Hudson, beside the homes of tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould.
Photos: Indiana Historical Society, Madam C.J. Walker Collection
An illiterate, impoverished daughter of freed slaves built the largest black-owned business in America, made a fortune, and touched thousands with her philanthropy.
Up from Slavery
Born to recently freed slaves in 1867, Louisiana native Sarah Breedlove Walker transcended poverty, illiteracy, and prejudice to become one of the most important businesswomen in America. Orphaned and widowed by the age of twenty, Breedlove left the uneasy Reconstruction environment of the deep South to join her brothers in St. Louis, Missouri, where she worked for years as a washerwoman to support her daughter, Lelia. It was a step up from sharecropping, but at $1.50 a day it wasn't very far. Breedlove would ultimately be inspired by the message of Booker T. Washington, whose autobiography Up From Slavery was a 1901 best-seller. Washington called for black people to lift themselves up by developing skills, working hard, and emphasizing good character.
Breedlove found her future in beauty products. She learned valuable lessons at the elbow of a black role model, Annie Turnbo Malone, who sold her shampoos and hair-pressing irons to crowds in St. Louis for the 1904 World's Fair. Malone hired Breedlove as a commission agent and sent the former washerwoman to Denver, Colorado in July 1905. Soon, Breedlove had split from Malone, and was making her own pomades and shampoos. In Denver, she met her second husband, an ad man named Charles J. Walker, who encouraged her to use the grand name "Madam C. J. Walker" and helped her create compelling advertisements. Walker's innovations led to wild success: in 1908, sales reached $6,672 (over $123,000 in 2002 dollars) -- and would hit $250,000 (over $4.3 million in 2002 dollars) within a few years.
By 1910, Walker had moved the Mme. C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company to the railroad hub of Indianapolis, Indiana. Advertising and marketing became the keys to her success. One of the largest employers of African American women, she carefully screened, groomed, and trained a 3,000-person strong sales force that was motivated by working on commission. In addition to door-to-door sales, Walker sold via mail order, and personally demonstrated her products in churches, schools, and other gathering places. She took lessons in public speaking and penmanship, and cultivated a striking persona, in fine clothing and a chauffeur-driven electric carriage.
Philanthropist and Role Model
Walker eagerly took up philanthropy, contributing to African American orphanages, old-age homes, schools, colleges, and a new civil rights organization, the NAACP. Walker became one of the best-known women in America. Upon her death in 1919, her business went to her daughter. Though she sold popular products, created job opportunities for thousands, and generously shared her wealth, Walker's greatest accomplishment may have been her inspirational story, which made her a lasting role model for future generations.