Born in Poverty as Sarah Breedlove; Died in Wealth as Madam C.J. Walker


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016

Sarah Breedlove (Madam C.J.) Walker
(Public Domain)

Owen (1828-1875) and Minerva (1828-1875) Breedlove were born into slavery and worked on the Madison County Louisiana plantation that was owned by Robert W. Burney. During the years they had four sons and one daughter and then came the Emancipation of slaves and the end of the war. On December 23, 1867 they celebrated their first child born into freedom and named her Sarah Breedlove.

The Breedlove family like many former slaves became sharecroppers. They lived in a windowless shack without running water and a dirt floor. Although free they were poor. A five-year old Sarah went into the fields to pick cotton with her family. Along with her mother and sister, Sarah helped wash white women clothes. The task was not easy for the young girl as she hauled the water and used lye soap for her work. Life took a tragic turn for Sarah when she was seven years old as an epidemic of yellow fever ran through the state killing both of her parents.

Without her parents Sarah moved to Vicksburg to live with her older sister Louvinia, where the young Sarah worked as a housemaid. Sarah spent most of her waking hours working and was denied any time to attain any formal education. She also faced a problem with the cruel and domineering husband of her sister. The only avenue for her to escape was marriage which she did at fourteen years old. Moses McWilliams was her husband and by eighteen she gave birth to a her only child a daughter Lelia. Her husband died in 1887 leaving her a widow with a two-year old.

Sarah packed up her meager possessions as she and her daughter moved to St. Louis, Missouri. She joined her four brothers who were all barbers. She worked as a washerwoman making $1.50 daily. She joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church where she met people who eventually inspired and encouraged her to get an education. She worked during the day and attended school at night. It was her first formal education. The stressful life style for the young single mother proved to lay the foundation of her future as she noticed that she was losing her hair.

Hair care, especially among the African-American community, was a challenge. Unlike today, hair was infrequently washed leading to severe dandruff and in some cases scalp disease. Fortunately for Sarah her brothers were also in the hair business as barbers and with their expertise Sarah experimented with various over-the-counter hair medications.

A disastrous marriage in 1894 led to divorce within nine years. Breedlove had no idea where the 20th century would take her and how her legacy was born with a business and a new name.

In 1904 Sarah went to work for another African American businesswoman Annie Minerva Turbo Malone (1869 or 1877-1957) who had created a hair product called “Wonderful Hair Grower”. Her sales agents went door to door selling her creation and at thirty-seven Sarah became one of her sales women. Incidentally the sales team was composed of all African American female sales agents.

Sarah moved to Denver in 1905 along with her daughter joining a sister-in-law and several nieces. While in Denver, Breedlove continued to improve her own hair care line and took Malone’s product to a Denver pharmacist. It was analyzed to helped Sarah fine-tune her own product line. Soon her formula was reaching a level of success in the Denver community. She employed her all-female family members filling jars in the attic of her home. Of course this caused a fall-out with Annie Turbo Malone as the two women became rivals in attracting African-American customers.

Sarah married an former advertising man, Charles Walker in 1906. It was at his suggestion that she became “Madam C.J. Walker”. He also became her business partner and in addition to door-to-door sales they engaged in a mail order business. Together they developed opening beauty parlors and teaching others how to care for hair. In 1908 they established Lelia College to train “hair culturists” to train in the “Walker System”.

Unfortunately the Walker marriage ended in 1910. Together they had grown the empire and Madam C.J. Walker would expand further when she set up her manufacturing facility in Indianapolis.


C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company
Indianapolis, Indiana, 1911
(Public Domain)

Madam C.J. Walker died from kidney failure brought on from her hypertension on May 25, 1919. She was fifty one years old and living in New York. She was laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx New York.

A woman born into poverty, daughter of slaves, went on to be acknowledged as the first self-made African-American millionaire. She established a YMCA in a black community in Indianapolis, She generously gave of her wealth giving thousands of dollars to black colleges and scholarships. She made sure her daughter got a college education and other black youths. She also challenged black leaders of her day and Booker T. Washington directly to:

“abandon the everyday sexism that they practiced. In her many speeches she urged her audiences, mostly Black women, to work hard, study hard, and demand to be treated as first-class citizens.” {6}

Mrs. Walker lived to enjoy the automobile. Although she had a full-time chauffeur, she learned how to drive and enjoyed taking her friends for rides. She was seen frequently in her car.

The photo below is a picture of Walker (reportedly used in a Ford Motor Company advertisement) and the accompanying quote is from Madam C.J. Walker and tells her life story.


(Public Domain)




Sergeant Major
Nov 21, 2014
My daughter is a cosmetologist. She was thrilled when she saw a display of Madam C J Walker products in the National Museum of African American History in Washington! How you dress and care for your hair is so important to African American women and occupies a different cultural significance than it does in white culture. The History Chicks did an excellent podcast a couple years ago on Madam C J Walker that is a great listen; you can get to it from their website.

Patrick H

Lt. Colonel
Mar 7, 2014
Great story! Has anyone noticed that in the back set of the car Madam Walker was driving a white woman is sitting? Obviously Sarah made friends regardless of race.
Thanks for sharing this inspiring story of a strong woman!
That was my thought, too. And don't you love their hats?!


Sergeant Major
Nov 21, 2014
It´s worth mentioning that the Netflix series ¨Self Made¨ is based on the life of Madam C J Walker. It´s a fictionalized retelling, but is fun to watch with a great cast.

John Hartwell

Forum Host
Aug 27, 2011
Central Massachusetts
Just goes to show that in this wonderful country of ours, no matter your race, creed, or origin, you have the opportunity to be successful. Thanks for posting.
Opportunity, indeed, but it's far from a level playing-field. When you consider the many barriers this lady had to overcome, her achievement is allthe more impressive. Things have improved somewhat, but we still have a ways to go.

Tom Hughes

First Sergeant
May 27, 2019
Opportunity, indeed, but it's far from a level playing-field. When you consider the many barriers this lady had to overcome, her achievement is allthe more impressive. Things have improved somewhat, but we still have a ways to go.
It’s really amazing for sure. Women couldn’t even vote during her lifetime and yet she became a millionaire!

Similar threads