Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 on a Delta, Louisiana plantation, this daughter of former slaves transformed herself from an uneducated farm laborer and laundress into one of the twentieth century’s most successful, self-made women entrepreneurs.
Orphaned at age seven, she often said, “I got my start by giving myself a start.” She survived by working in the cotton fields of the South and at 14, she married Moses McWilliams. Her only daughter, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia Walker) was born on June 6, 1885. When her husband died two years later, she moved to St. Louis to join her four brothers who had established themselves as barbers. Working for as little as $1.50 a day, she managed to save enough money to educate her daughter in the city’s public schools.
During the 1890s, Sarah began to suffer from a scalp ailment that caused her to lose most of her hair. She experimented with many homemade remedies and store-bought products. What resulted was “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” which is the product that launched her business.
To promote her products, the new “Madam C.J. Walker” – having changed her name after marrying Charles Joseph (CJ) Walker – traveled for a year and a half on a dizzying crusade throughout the heavily black South and Southeast, selling her products door to door, demonstrating her scalp treatments in churches and lodges, and devising sales and marketing strategies.
By early 1910, she had settled in Indianapolis, which was at that time the nation’s largest inland manufacturing center. It was in Indianapolis where she built a factory, hair and manicure salon and another training school. The Walker Manufacturing plant is now the home of the Madame Walker Theatre Center located at the foot of Indiana Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. Less than a year after her arrival, Walker grabbed national headlines in the black press when she contributed $1,000 to the building fund of the “colored” YMCA in Indianapolis which was at the corner of Michigan & Senate.
Walker moved to New York in 1916. Once in Harlem, she quickly became involved in Harlem’s social and political life, taking special interest in the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement to which she contributed $5,000. In July 1917, when a white mob murdered more than three dozen blacks in East St. Louis, Illinois, Walker joined a group of Harlem leaders who visited the White House to present a petition advocating federal anti-lynching legislation.
By the time she died, she had helped create the role of the 20th Century, self-made American businesswoman; established herself as a pioneer of the modern black hair-care and cosmetics industry; and set standards in the African-American community for corporate and community giving. Tenacity and perseverance, faith in herself and in God, quality products and “honest business dealings” were the elements and strategies she prescribed for aspiring entrepreneurs who requested the secret to her rags-to-riches ascent.