Madam C.J. Walker

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Black History
The first person in her family to be born free from slavery in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker became an extremely successful businesswoman who assisted and contributed to numerous African American organizations and institutions.


On December 23, 1867, in Delta, Louisiana Sarah Breedlove (later known as Madam C.J. Walker) became the first person in her family born free from slavery. Her parents, Owen and Minerva Breedlove were sharecroppers on their former owners' plantation. The Breedloves, like other tenants, did not consider sharecropping much better than slavery. They were forced to purchase goods from the landowners at inflated prices and were rarely able to save any money.

Yellow fever struck the plantation where the Breedloves lived and, in 1874, Sarah's parents fell sick and died. Her brothers moved north to find work, but since Sarah was only seven, her older sister cared for her. When the cotton crop failed, the two moved to Vicksburg and found work as washerwomen. When Louvenia, Sarah's sister, married a dominating and abusive man, Sarah left "at 14, 'to get a home of my own'." Sarah soon married Moses McWilliams, a laborer, and on June 6, 1885, she gave birth to her daughter, Lelia McWilliams. Tragically, Moses died in an accident in 1887 leaving Sarah a widow and a single mother at age 20. Sarah decided to move to St. Louis where she heard wages for housekeepers and washerwomen were higher.

Sarah was proud and worked diligently as a washerwoman. She always wore cleanly pressed clothing in order to "advertise" her services. Sarah married John Davis, an alcoholic, but divorced him not long after. Also, soon after Sarah moved to St. Louis, she joined the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. This was the first church planned, financed, built, and funded by black citizens in the city. This church helped Sarah financially and spiritually when she moved to St. Louis. Although she could not contribute much to the church financially, she worked to help other needy members in the community. She helped to organize the missionary society for the church, which aided families in crisis with food and money. This was the start of Madam Walker's great philanthropic contributions.


Despite her confidence, Sarah was self-conscious about her hair. Due to stress, poor diet, and the hair treatments of the day, many African-American women had brittle, patchy hair. In order to cope with this problem, "Sarah McWilliams asked God to keep her hair from falling out. She also tried a number of patented hair mixtures.Then she got a better idea: If she could devise her own hair product.she could go into business for herself." According to a reporter, Sarah told him that God "answered my prayer, for one night I had a dream, and in that dream a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put in on my scalp, and in a few weeks, my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out." This was the beginning of Madam C.J. Walker's beauty empire. Sarah decided to leave St. Louis and go west to start her new company. Soon after her move, she married Charles Joseph Walker, who was a sales agent for a black newspaper in St. Louis. At this time, Sarah took the name Madam C.J. Walker. Walker invested her $1.50 in savings to start her door-to-door hair care business in Colorado.

While working as a cook, Walker produced her hair-growing product and demonstrated it to women in their homes. When Lelia was 21 and a college graduate, she joined her mother in Denver to help with the business. At this time, the profits for Walker's company were $35 per week, more than twice the salary of the average white male worker. The company expanded and began to take mail orders. Lelia stayed at the office and filled the orders that her mother sent while traveling, demonstrating, and selling the products across the country. Due to the rapid growth of the company, Walker decided to move her offices to Pittsburgh, the steel city. Pittsburgh and its resources proved beneficial to the business, especially with the manufacturing of her hot steel comb, an essential element for her hair care system. The black community in this city was strong with a solid basis of black businesses. Walker opened a beauty college in Pittsburgh in order to train African-American women. In 1910, The Pennsylvania Negro Business Directory called Walker "one of the most successful businesswomen of the race in this community." Despite the commerce and success of Pittsburgh, Walker decided that it was time to move her business headquarters to a more accessible city. She chose Indianapolis, Indiana, the "Crossroads of America," because of its train systems and its successful African-American business community. Walker Enterprises remain headquartered in Indianapolis today.


Freeman Briley Ransom, a graduate of Columbia University Law School, took over the daily operations of Walker's company while she was on the road. She recruited women to sell her products and to make a better life for themselves. Walker put much of the company's profits back into the organization and into black communities nationwide in order to expand and improve them.

As her business enterprise grew, so did the scope of her philanthropic activity. A theater in Indianapolis would not admit Walker for the same price as a white customer. She built a factory and office for her business. This complex covered a city block in downtown Indianapolis and was home to a theater for black residents. Walker was also a supporter of the arts and African-American artists.

Education was another of Walker's philanthropic priorities. She met Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in 1912 at the National Association of Colored Women's annual conference. Schools were not available for African-American children in the first part of the twentieth century in Florida, so Bethune had opened her school in 1904. This school lacked funds and struggled to survive. Walker led a fundraising campaign for the tiny school starting with her own $5,000 donation. Due to the campaign's success, the school was able to expand to meet the needs of more children. Walker also left $5,000 to the Haines Institute in Augusta. "She sponsored a teacher at Charlotte Hawkins Brown's Palmer Memorial Institute, and a black preparatory school in Sedalia, North Carolina." Walker also gave thousands of dollars to the Tuskegee Institute.

Not only did Walker donate money to educational institutions, but she started her own, Lelia College. This school taught young black women hairstylist skills. At a convention of the National Negro Business League, Walker said, "I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself, for I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race. I had little or no opportunity when I started out in life, having been left an orphan.I had to make my own living and my own opportunity! But I made it! That is why I want to say to every Negro woman present, don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come.Get up and make them." Madam Walker's workers made an average of $10 per week while their southern counterparts made less than $2 per week. In Indianapolis, Walker built homes for African-Americans in the community and employed people mainly from the local black community. She created a union for her workers "The Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturist Union of foster cooperation among the agents and to protect them from competitors who were imitating Walker products and selling inferior goods at a lower price." Although Walker was not formally educated herself, she surrounded herself with tutors and educated people and knew that knowledge was essential to success.

During World War I, Walker traveled around the country delivering motivational speeches to African-American troops about the importance they played in the defense of the nation. She fought tirelessly for anti-lynching laws and gave the largest donation ever to the NAACP's Anti-Lynching Fund, $5,000, and gave $25,000 to various African-American organizations. In 1913, Walker contributed the largest individual sum of money by an African-American, $1,000, to the new black YMCA in Indianapolis, allowing for its completion. Booker T. Washington was so impressed with this gift from a black woman, that he attended the dedication of this building. She also led a campaign to save the home of Frederick Douglass. She worked for women's clubs around the nation.

Madam C.J. Walker served as a role model. Living by the motto of hard work and self-help, she achieved greatness. Walker once said, "If I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard." Walker became the first African-American female millionaire in the United States. As a successful businesswoman, she felt it her duty to give back to the community. After her death, a trust fund was created with $100,000 to go to "worthy charities" and Walker left sums ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 to such institutions as the Colored Orphans' Home in St. Louis, the Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored People in Pittsburgh, the Haines Institute in Georgia, the NAACP, and the Tuskegee Institute. From washerwoman to millionaire, Walker set an example for future generations of women to pursue their dreams and to improve their situations for themselves and for their people.

Related Organizations

Lelia College, Madam C.J. Walker Theater, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, National Negro Business League.

Related People

Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Du Bois, Robert Lee Brokenburr, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Lucy Laney Haines, Marjorie Stewart Joyner, Alice Kelly, Freeman B. Ransom, Booker T. Washington, James Weldon Johnson, A'Lelia Bundles.


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This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.