Madam C. J. Walker, First Female Self-Made Millionaire in U.S.
I am putting up some posts from the past about extraordinary people of colour. #blacklivesmatter
By Scurlock Studio (Washington, D.C.) (photographers). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Madam C. J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove, the last of six children, on December 23rd, 1867, in Louisiana.
Sarah’s parents and four older brothers and one sister were slaves on Robert W. Burney’s Madison Parish plantation, but Sarah was born a free child, as the Emancipation Proclamation was signed before her birth.
Her mum died when she was 5 and her dad died when she was 7 – she lived with her older sister Louvenia, and brother-in-law Jesse Powell in Mississippi, and became a domestic servant at the age of 10.
She married at the age of 14, and had one daughter, Lelia, who was 2 when her husband died – she remarried but left this husband and moved to Missouri. There she married again, Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman. Although she eventually divorced him in 1912, she kept his name and became known as Madam C. J. Walker.
In 1888 she moved to Saint Louis, Missouri, where three of her brothers, who were barbers, lived. She learned about hair care from them, and ended up selling hair care products for an African hair care entrepreneur, Annie Turbo Malone.
Sarah began to adapt the products and develop her own product line. From there, she started her own career.
Between 1911 and 1919, during the height of her career, Sarah and her company employed several thousand women as sales agents for its products, and employed 20,000 women selling products door to door. She also understood the power of advertising and harnessed this to advertise in African American newspapers and magazines.
She encouraged her employees by giving prizes to the best sales agents – helped other black women build their own careers, and rewarded those who made the largest contributions to charities in their communities.
She became a political activist, promoting black interests, and donating money to black causes. Profits from her business helped her donate to many causes and in 1918 the National Association of Coloured Women’s Clubs honoured her for making the largest individual contribution to help preserve Frederick Douglass’s Anacostia house. She pledged $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund. At the time it was the largest gift the NAACP had ever received. She also bequeathed nearly $100,000 to orphanages, institutions, and individuals and her will directed two-thirds of future net profits of her estate to charity.
She was one of the wealthiest African American women in the US, the WORLD’S MOST SUCCESSFUL FEMALE ENTREPRENEUR of her time, (let alone most successful black woman!) and one of the most successful African-American business owners ever.
She died on May 25th, 1919.
Eventually, by the 1920s, her empire expanded as far as Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica, carried on by her daughter.
The firm is still going today strong today as evidenced by their reply to my tweet of this post! Hooray!
If you’d like to read about more extraordinary women, why not buy the book Reaching the Stars, Poems about Extraordinary Women and Girls, by me, Jan Dean and Michaela Morgan.
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- Tagged: Black activsist, black hair products, entrepreneur, Extraordinary Women, Jan Dean, Liz Brownlee, Madam C. J. Walker, Michaela Morgan, Poems about extraordinary women and girls, poetry, Reaching the Stars, self-made millionaire