Remembering African American Heroes: Madam C. J. Walker

Wouldn’t you like to make a million dollars? Madam C. J. Walker was born into poverty, the daughter of former slaves Owen and Minerva Breedlove, in rural Louisiana in 1867. She had four brothers and one sister. Judging from her history, no one would guess that she became a business owner and the first female millionaire.

At the age of seven Walker was tragically orphaned; her mother died most likely of cholera, and the causes of her father’s death are unknown. Walker was forced to move in with her older sister and her husband. This wasn’t an easy life for Walker. Her sister’s husband was abusive and made Walker’s life very difficult. She was forced to seek escape, through marriage, at the age of fourteen.

Walker and her husband were married for seven years, and had one daughter. When Walker was twenty, and her daughter only two, her husband also passed away. This left Walker fully responsible for her daughter’s welfare.

This early life was sad and challenging, though not uncommon. There was nothing particular of note in Walker’s history that would lead one to foresee her later success. However, this thrust into independence might be said to have propelled Walker down the path to greatness.

In order to care for her daughter, Walker moved to St Louis where her brothers resided and worked as barbers. For herself, Walker found employment as a laundress and saved enough money to put her daughter through school.

One day, Walker’s hair began falling out. Perhaps from stress, or potentially from a common scalp infection of the time (due to irregularity of hair care in that time period). Like most people, Walker wanted her hair to remain soft and attractive, so she experimented until she was able to create a hair care formula that conditioned and maintained her hair’s health. Once she found success with her own hair, Walker began a mail order business. This grew and she began door to door sales and public demonstrations all over the South. Eventually she became a national corporation, employing over three thousand people, that included both hair and beauty products. Walker was so successful that after fifteen years she became the first female entrepreneur to make a million.