Madam C.J. Walker is notable as the first female self-made millionaire in America. She was born as Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana in 1867. Her family was enslaved, but Sarah was the first of their children born after the Emancipation Proclamation. She was orphaned by age 7 and moved to Mississippi to work as a domestic servant and lived with her older sister and brother-in-law. She was a bit of a wanderer, living in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Indiana and New York.
She got married at fourteen to Moses McWilliams, potentially to escape abuse at the hands of her brother-in-law. She had one daughter with her first husband when she was seventeen. Her first husband died five years into their marriage and Sarah was a single mother for seven years. She moved to Missouri where her three brothers lived and there she worked as a laundress to earn money for her daughter’s education. She was quite involved with the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in her community there as a singer and member. She remarried in 1894 to her second husband, John Davis. This marriage ended in divorce in 1903 and Sarah moved to Colorado with her daughter.
The title of Madam C.J Walker comes from Sarah’s third marriage in which she wed Charles Joseph Walker. While Sarah was in Missouri she learned about haircare from her brothers who worked as barbers. She eventually got a job selling haircare products for Annie Turno Malone, who would later become her biggest rival. Her third husband was her business partner when she decided to take on hair care as a door to door business. She advertised specifically to the black community and taught women how to use the products and style their hair. Sarah and Charles actually divorced in 1912, just as she was beginning to see some extensive success.
In 1910 Sarah set up the headquarters for the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis. Besides the initial factory she also ended up building a hair salon, training school and laboratory. She was a lead employer of women, especially in management positions. Although the exact amount of staff is unverified, it is thought that she trained up to 20,000 women.
By the time the 1920’s rolled around Sarah’s business was so successful it had spilled out of the United States into Cuba, Panama, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Haiti.
The more her wealth and renown grew the more involved in activism and philanthropy she became. She encouraged black women to become entrepreneurs and become independent. She spoke on politics and issues that were important to her. She raised money for scholarships and institutions that would better the people of her community.
Sarah was a remarkable woman who achieved so much more than most people could have dreamed of. Going from an orphaned domestic servant to the wealthiest African American women in the country is no small feat. Sarah Walker made that journey with grace and made the world a better place in all the ways that she could in her short life. She passed at the age of 51 and left majority of her estate to charities.
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