Madam C. J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove to Owen and Minerva (née Anderson) Breedlove, former slaves on a plantation owned by Robert W. Burney. Sarah was the first child of the couple born after the Civil War in 1867. In 1863, the Union Army had occupied the area during the siege of Vicksburg. On this map you can see the proximity of the Burney plantation to the city of Vicksburg.
Members of the Breedlove family were among the 60 slaves living in 13 dwellings on the Burney plantation as shown on the 1860 slave schedules.
Once the war was over, the family worked in the area as sharecroppers, but in 1873 Minerva died, and by 1875 Owen was also dead, leaving Sarah an orphan at age 7.
She lived with her older sister Louvenia and her husband and they moved to Vicksburg. By age 14 Sarah was married to Moses McWilliams, and by age 17 she had her daughter, Lelia (who later changed her name to A’Lelia). Moses died in 1887, just two years after Lelia’s birth, leaving Sarah a widow by age 20 with a small child to care for. With her options limited in Vicksburg, she moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where several of her older brothers had moved and were working as barbers.
Despite the challenges life had thrown her, she was determined to make a better life for her daughter, and she began working as a laundress. It was arduous work, but she worked hard. She married John Davis in August of 1894, and they lived with or near her brothers at various times. An 1895 city directory for St. Louis shows the Davises living at 1535 Lucas av. and Sarah’s brother James Breedlove living in the rear of 1517 Lucas av.
Life with her husband John was difficult. He had a temper—and a girlfriend. Sarah began losing her hair around the time of her marriage. When it came to hair care for African American women, there weren’t a lot of options at the time and the products being used stripped the natural oils from their hair and caused breakage. On the other hand, if the hair was washed too infrequently, women were susceptible to scalp problems that caused hair loss.
In 1902, Sarah had earned enough money to send Lelia to Knoxville College in Tennessee, and with resolve she set her mind to better her lot. By 1903, she had parted ways with John Davis, and around that time she met Charles J. Walker, a newspaper ad salesman. She became an agent selling hair products for Annie Turnbo, another woman in the hair-care industry, and took pride in helping women who were struggling with hair loss to regain their hair.
In 1905, Sarah moved to Denver, Colorado, joining her sister-in-law and four nieces, and began selling hair products and giving hair and scalp treatments there. She began experimenting with ingredients, working on an exclusive formula that would help solve the chronic hair and scalp problems that many African American women faced. Charles soon joined her there, and they were married in 1906.
Charles’ business experience and Sarah’s ambition and hard-working nature seemed to naturally complement each other in the early years of their marriage. Later that year, she began advertising her own products, under the name Madam C. J. Walker. She began to expand her empire beyond Denver to other Colorado cities, teaching new agents her methods of scalp treatment. Business was booming, and Lelia joined in the enterprise, working with clients, mixing the product, and filling mail orders.
The product line was expanded, and as Madam C. J. Walker, Sarah took to the road, traveling by railroad to reach new markets. With the mail-order business booming, the company needed to find a better location. A factory was established in Pittsburgh in 1908, and Sarah started a school there and began training a network of agents who would fan out selling her products and treatments.
Her business opened doors for many African American women whose options for employment at that time were limited. And her product worked. Testimonials poured in and the business continued to grow. In 1910 she transferred her headquarters to Indianapolis. By 1911 she had 950 sales agents and a new factory in Indianapolis.
The success of her business did not carry over into her marriage, and a few years later she divorced Charles. She focused on her work and as the business grew, so did her philanthropic efforts. She pledged $1,000 to the building of a YMCA in Indianapolis and was known to help out the poor in the area surrounding her factory. She was very active in anti-lynching campaigns, like those of the NAACP, and praised the services of African Americans serving in World War I, calling for equal treatment for those serving. She donated to numerous educational institutions, with the aim of improving education for African Americans.
She continued to travel and throw herself into her work, but it came at the cost of her health. She died in 1919 of hypertension at her home in New York, but the good she did continued even after her death. She left all of her real estate and one-third of the company proceeds to her daughter, who had by now changed her name to A’Lelia Walker, and most of the remaining two-thirds went to charities.
If you’d like to learn more about Madam C. J. Walker, her great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles has written a biography called On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. It’s a fascinating look not only at her journey but also at the history of times in which she lived and came to thrive. There are also biographical sketches on her blog: www.madamcjwalker.com.
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