The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black

Trista - February 2, 2017

The story of Madam C.J. Walker is not only inspirational, it is timeless. She overcame many personal struggles, driven by her powerful entrepreneurial spirit. Surrounded by a male-dominated business world, Madam Walker had a passion for sharing her talents with other women, and she proudly trained thousands of women to grow successful businesses.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
The plantation where Sarah Breedlove was the first free-born of her family in 1867, near Delta, Louisiana. Chingum

Born on a Plantation

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, her parents, Owen and Minerva, were recently freed slaves. They lived near Delta, Louisiana on Robert W. Burney’s Madison Parish plantation. She had five other siblings including an older sister, Louvinia, and four brothers, Alexander, James, Solomon, and Owen Jr.

Sarah was the first of her siblings born into freedom from slavery thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation. Her mother passed away in 1875, and her father followed just a short while after. Sarah was at the tender age of seven when she became an orphan.

Her older sister, who was married to a man named Jesse Powell, allowed Sarah to stay with them. The trio moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1877. Sarah picked cotton and did household work.

As a young teen, Sarah fled from her environment, fed up with the child labor she was forced to perform, and mistreatment from her brother-in-law.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
A young Madam C.J. Walker.

Married with Child

Sarah married her first husband, Moses McWilliams, at the age of 14. The marriage bore a beloved daughter, Lelia McWilliams, on June 6, 1885. Sadly, Moses died just two years later when Sarah was 20 years old. She and her daughter moved from Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri to live closer to her brothers, who had established their careers as barbers.

Sarah earned about $1.50 per day as a washerwoman. It was enough to send her daughter to a public school for a good education. She also saved money to take night classes. She was eager to continue learning and gaining knowledge. Throughout the 1880s, Sarah sang at the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church when ragtime music developed in her community.

Problems with Hair

It was not uncommon for women during this era, including Sarah, to suffer from severe dandruff, baldness, and other scalp and skin ailments. Harsh chemicals such as lye in soaps for cleaning hair and washing clothes took a toll on hair and skin. Women suffered from hair loss for other reasons, too, including poor diet, sickness, and bad hygiene.

Sarah had lost much of her hair due to a scalp disorder in the 1890s. Because her brothers were skilled barbers, Sarah learned about hair care from her family. She experimented with both store-bought hair care products and home remedies.

At the turn of the century, Sarah became a commission agent and sold hair products for established entrepreneurs like Annie Turnbo Malone, an African-American woman and the owner of the Poro Company. Years later, Annie Turnbo Malone would become one of Madam C.J. Walker’s biggest competitors.

In 1905, Sarah moved to Denver, Colorado to continue selling products for Annie Turnbo Malone. By now she was 35 years old and was working on a personal hair treatment of her own. It was only a side project at first, but would soon grow into something much bigger.

Just a year later, Sarah wed Charles J. Walker. He was a newspaper advertising salesman she knew from Missouri. Her supportive husband, who was also her business partner, helped Sarah create newspaper advertisements for her own hair care products that she had been perfecting over the years.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
An early ad for Madam C.J. Walker promoting her cold creams, hair and complexion products. Library of Congress.

Her husband advised Sarah to use the Walker name to become more recognizable. She promoted herself as an independent hairdresser and sold cosmetic creams door-to-door. This also gave her the opportunity to teach other women how to groom and style African-American hair.

Sarah Breedlove famously became known as Madam C.J. Walker, which turned into a household name. Her daughter Lelia, who still went by McWilliams, officially changed her last name to match her mother’s. From then on, she went by A’Lelia Walker.

While still in Denver, A’Lelia Walker was in charge of the mail order operation. This allowed Mr. and Mrs. Walker to travel throughout the southern and eastern U.S. to expand their business.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
Trained hair culturists doing the ‘Walker Method’ on clients. Chingum.

Helping Women Learn the Trade

Not only did Madam C.J. Walker sell products, but she also gave lectures and demonstrated her Walker Method. In turn, these ladies became beauty agents and sold Madam Walker’s products on her behalf. They, too, taught the Walker Method.

The Walker Method promoted hair growth for women, especially African-Americans, through the application of her conditioning products. The proven system included shampoo and a pomade. Brushing and heating the hair with iron combs was a strenuous process.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
Madam C.J. Walker products and tins on display at The Women’s Museum in Dallas, Texas. Naija Tell It

This plan directly increased the company’s sales because brittle hair became not only manageable but also soft and luxurious. By 1908, the Walkers moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, opened a factory, a beauty parlor, and founded Lelia College to train hair culturists and sales agents.

Two years later, they relocated once again to keep up with the growing business. This time it was Indianapolis, Indiana and the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company headquarters were established.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
The Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis, Indiana. Indiana Historical Society.

The once Sarah Breedlove, the first free birth in her family, now had her own factory, hair salon, laboratory, and beauty school. Her business flourished, and she was wildly successful. She was making huge profits that would be equivalent to millions of dollars in today’s modern world.

The sales beauticians of Indianapolis were known as Walker Agents. They were well-known and popular throughout black communities all over the United States.

The Walker brand became associated with cleanliness and loveliness. Madam Walker did this purposefully to help advance the status of African-Americans.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
An advertisement printed in the late 1910s promoting Madam C.J. Walker and her business. Credit:

Giving Back to the Community

She took this concept one step further and became a civil rights activist. As an innovator of her time, Madam Walker established and organized clubs and conventions to recognize not only business and sales but philanthropic and educational endeavors for African-Americans also.

The wealthier she became, the more vocal she was about her views. In 1912, she spoke at the annual gather of the National Negro Business League (NNBL).

From the convention floor, she addressed the crowd declaring, “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.” The following year, she was the keynote speaker.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
Madam C.J. Walker driving a car. Madam Walker Family Archives.

She gave the largest donation, a pledge of $1,000, by any African-American ever toward the construction of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Indianapolis in 1913.

Madam C.J. Walker took pride in employing women including Alice Kelly and Marjorie Stewart Joyner. She gladly taught them how to manage a business and promoted them to key staff positions.

The Walkers ultimately divorced in 1913. Still going by Madam Walker, she decided to travel Latin America and the Caribbean. Naturally, she promoted her business and recruited more hair culturists.

In the meantime, A’Lelia convinced her mother to purchase a house and office in Harlem, New York. After returning home in 1916, Madam Walker took over the operations in Harlem and left the daily tasks of the Indianapolis factory her management team.

While living in Harlem, Madam Walker became immersed with its social and political culture. She used her profits for charities and established philanthropists throughout the city. She donated over $100,000 to homes for the elderly, orphanages, educational scholarships, and many other programs that helped improve African-Americans opportunities.

Madam Walker regularly gave money to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Conference on Lynching. She pledged $5,000 to the organization, which equals around $65,000 in the today’s currency. At the time, she donated the largest amount of money the NAACP had ever received.

She and her daughter lived well, but they were very generous with making positive contributions. The pair managed their funds carefully to give back to churches, schools, and civil rights organizations. A’Lelia would eventually become an important woman during the Harlem Renaissance.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
Madam C.J. Walker (left) and her daughter A’Lelia Walker (right). A’Lelia Bundles Walker Archive

Nearly 20,000 women were trained by her company by 1917. They dressed in white shirts and black shirts — a distinctive uniform for the Walker Agents. Each lady also carried a black satchel as they traveled throughout cities. They sold homemade hair pomade and other products in little tin containers that featured Madam C.J. Walker’s picture.

Her prime business peak was from 1911 until 1918. During this time, she learned how important advertising was and the power of brand awareness. Madam C.J. Walker had a presence throughout the United States thanks to advertisements in black newspapers and magazines.

Her travels also contributed to her success. Her fame spread to Cuba, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Panama, and Haiti because of her Latin America excursion a few years earlier.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
An advertisement posted in a newspaper for Madam C.J. Walker. Library of Congress.

The First National Beauty Culturist Convention in 1917

Sarah Breedlove not only transformed herself in Madam C.J. Walker, but she also had a direct hand in training other black women in sales. She showed them how to budget their income and build their own businesses. Like herself, she wanted them to be financially stable and independent.

This passion for sharing her talents and the inspiration model of the National Association of Colored Women, she founded local and state clubs for her sales agents. Then she established the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents (predecessor to the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culturists Union of America).

Over 200 women met in 1917 for the first annual conference in Philadelphia.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
Madam C.J. Walker at the National Convention in Philadelphia in 1917. Chingum

Madam Walker herself happily awarded prizes to the hardworking women. Some awards included the one who recruited the most sales agents or who had sold the most products.

Being a philanthropist herself, Madam Walker also took the time to recognize the women who made the largest charitable donations to their communities. The convention was one of the first of its kind; it was a national gathering for women to discuss and celebrate business.

Walker’s Estate: Villa Lewaro

That same year Madam Walker commissioned New York’s first licensed black architect, Vertner Tandy, to design a home. The luxurious estate, called Villa Lewaro, is located in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

It cost the first self-made female millionaire about $250,000, but it became so much more than just a house. She hosted gatherings for community leaders to inspire other young black entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
Another view of the estate Villa Lewaro. David Rohl/Historic New England

Her home was completed in May 1918, and her first party was honoring the Assistant Secretary for Negro Affairs of the U.S. Department of War, Emmett Jay Scott.

Continued Civil Rights Work

New York definitely had an influence on Madam Walker; she became more involved with politics. Not only did she associate with W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and others, but she delivered her own lectures about social and economic issues.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
Attorney Freeman B. Ransom stands in the back to the left, along with Madam C.J. Walker, Booker T. Washington, and others at the dedication of the Senate Avenue YMCA on July 13, 1913.

In 1917, Madam Walker became a member of the executive committee of the New York chapter of the NAACP. Together, they organized a Silent Protest Parade, which took place on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Over 8,000 African-Americans joined to protest an East St. Louis riot that left 39 black Americans dead.

As the United States became enthralled with World War I, Madam Walker was no longer just a wealthy, famous businesswoman. She advocated for a training camp establishment for black officers in the Army. She also used her powerful voice as a leader in the Circle for Negro War Relief.

The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) honored Madam C.J. Walker in 1918 for making the largest contributions to help keep the Anacostia home of Frederick Douglass.

Her Legacy

On May 25, 1919, Madam C.J. Walker passed away at her estate at Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. It was due to complications of hypertension, or high blood pressure; she was only 51 years old. She was the sole owner of her business, which was valued at over $1 million.

Her funeral service was held at the Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New York City; it was similar to the one she used to sing for in the south so many decades ago. Mary McLeod Bethune, who rose to become a noted African-American educator, delivered the eulogy.

You can visit Madam C.J. Walker’s grave at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
Madam C.J. Walker’s grave is located in the Bronx, New York. Wikipedia

Naturally, A’Lelia took control of the business and became the president of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. Villa Lewaro, her estate, later became a National Historic Landmark.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
Madam C.J. Walker’s estate Villa Lewaro. David Rohl/Historic New England

In her will, she left one-third of her estate to her adored daughter, A’Lelia. The remaining two-thirds of her future net profits would continue to be donated to charity.

Before her death, Madam C.J. Walker began building an arts center in Indianapolis known as the Walker Building. It officially opened in 1927. It, too, was registered as a National Historic Landmark after decades of significant cultural growth took place in the art center, especially for African-Americans. The United States Post Office issued Madam Walker her own stamp in honor of its ‘Black Heritage’ series in 1998.

The First Female Self-Made Millionaire in America was Black
In 1998 Madam C.J. Walker was honored with a US postal stamp. A’Lelia Bundles Walker Archives

Madam C.J. Walker, the first free-born of her siblings on a plantation in Louisiana, was the first American women to become a self-made millionaire. She is remembered for her savvy business sense along with her philanthropic generosity.