The Legendary Madam C. J. Walker: America’s First Self-Made Female Millionaire?

Family History, Lifestyle
17 February 2017
by Ancestry

Madam C.J. Walker was hailed by some as the “first self-made American woman millionaire.”

She made a fortune with her successful line of hair products for African American women.

This is her amazing story.

Orphan by Age 7, Widow by Age 20

Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, her parents had been freed from slavery only two years before.

Members of the Breedlove family were among the 60 slaves on the Burney plantation as shown on the 1860 slave schedules.
Members of the Breedlove family were among the 60 slaves on the Burney plantation, shown on the 1860 slave schedules.

Sarah became an orphan at age 7 and was married at 14. By the time she was 20, she was a widow with a young daughter.

A second marriage to John Davis in 1894 was difficult. He had a temper—and a girlfriend. She also began losing her hair around that time.

But despite the challenges life had thrown her, she was determined to make a better life for her daughter.

The Beginning of an Empire

Around 1903, 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.

Madame_CJ_Walker (1)
Madame CJ Walker took pride in helping women struggling with hair loss.

In 1905, when she was 37 years old, Sarah moved to Denver, Colorado 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.

By 1906 she had created her Wonderful Hair Grower specifically for black women, married for a third time, and had begun referring to herself as Madam C.J. Walker.

Unquestioned Success and Giving Back

Over the next 13 years, she and thousands of trained associates (all women) sold Madam Walker’s hair care products across the United States.


Though there is some debate on whether her fortune was worth $1 million when she died in 1919 at age 51, there was no question about her success, her mansion in New York, and her philanthropy.

She supported anti-lynching campaigns, black colleges, and civil rights, while providing work for thousands of African American women. Madam Walker said she was not in business “for myself alone, but to do all the good I can for the uplift of my race.”

Who are the pioneering women in your own past? The mothers, daughters, and sisters who didn’t let anything stop them? 

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