Madam C.J. Walker, Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker

Madam C.J. Walker, between 1905 and 1919 (Photo credit: Scurlock Studio, Washington, D.C.; Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History; photo in the public domain)

Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker, best known as Madam C.J. Walker (1867–1919), became the first self-made woman millionaire of any race in the United States. In 1904, she founded the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, starting the first black cosmetics company with less than two dollars and an original formula for straightening hair. That formula, she said, was revealed to her in a dream by an African man. Born in Delta, Louisiana, to sharecroppers who had been enslaved before emancipation, she moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and then Denver, Colorado, where she founded her business and began selling Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower, which she promoted door to door, traveling by train and using a network of churches for for housing and hospitality, throughout the South. After moving her business to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she established Lelia College to train "hair culturists." She moved again in 1910 to Indianapolis, Indiana, where she built a factory to produce her growing number of products and opened a salon and a another training school. After moving to New York City, she became involved in politics and social activism, speaking out on issues ranging from ending black oppression in the South to decolonizing Africa. She also demonstrated her generosity in charitable giving. At the time of her death, her products were being used throughout the United States, Central America, and the Caribbean, and her schools had trained more than 40,000 African-American women as sales agents. A'Lelia Bundles wrote a biography of her great-great grandmother, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.

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