The Success Story of Madam C. J. Walker: First Black American Millionaire

On this day, December 23 in the year 1867, the woman considered as the first African-American self-made woman millionaire was born in Louisiana, USA. Her name was Sarah Breedlove better known as Madam C. J. Walker, the founder of Madame C.J. Walker Laboratories.

Madam C. J. Walker
Madam C. J. Walker (Credit:

Sarah was orphaned at the age of seven. She went to live with her sister’s family in Mississippi where she started working in the farm picking cotton. She couldn’t bear the mistreatment by her brother-in-law so she left and got married at 14 to Moses McWilliams who died after the birth of their first child. She moved to St. Louis, Missouri and found work as a helper in a barber shop where three of his brothers were working.

Sarah had problems with hair loss and dandruff. After trying different treatments from hair care products, she came across a company who hired her as an agent for hair care products. Along the way, she learned the details of developing her own product line. In 1900, she and her daughter moved to Denver, Colorado. She met and married her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker. She began to introduce herself as Madam C. J. Walker. She also started to market her line of cosmetic products dedicated to black women.

Against all odds, Sarah went house to house selling hair care products and at the same time teaching women how to take care of their hair. Soon, she was travelling from coast to coast holding seminar and distributing her products. In 1906, her daughter started a mail-order business focusing on her mother’s cosmetics. In 1910, Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was incorporated and a factory in Indianapolis was opened. International distributorship followed and a beauty college was established.

Sarah Breedlove or Madam C. J. Walker died of kidney failure in 1919 at the age of 51. Before she died, she became an active campaigner for human rights and donated funds for its promotion.

In 2020, a mini-series entitled “Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker” was released by Netflix. It based on the biography On Her Own Ground by A’Lelia Bundles.


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