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Madam C. J. Walker: A True American Rags to Riches Story

M.C.J.W. Beauty Culture

Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, and although she was the fifth born of six, she was the first child born into freedom after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Her five older siblings and parents were slaves on a large plantation in Lousiana. However, by the time Madam Walker passed away in 1919, she had become the first self-made female millionaire in the United States.

Struggling Childhood

About the time Sarah reached the age of six, yellow fever became a wide-spread issue in LA. By the time Sarah was seven, she was orphaned after losing both her parents a year apart to unknown causes. Shortly after that, she went to live with her older sister and brother-in-law, and the three of them moved to Vicksburg, MS. To earn a living Sarah did household work and picked cotton. Although the future business owner, did not attend school as a child, she did know how to read and write. After years of an indigent life and dealing with an abusive brother-in-law, Sarah married her first husband Moses McWilliams when she was just fourteen. Within a few years, the newlyweds started their family with the arrival of their daughter Lelia. It was just a short two years later when tragedy struck again leaving Sarah, a widow when Moses died. This young single mother of one had a few options, and she chose to move to St. Lous where her brothers worked as barbers.

Discovering There is More to Life

The move to St. Louis offered new hope for Breedlove and her daughter. Shortly after their arrival, Sarah became employed as a washerwoman and earned $1.50 a day. The income meant positive changes. Such as the ability to afford to send Lelia to public school, and for Sarah to attend school at night. The Lousiana native quickly became acclimated into the community and joined the St. Paul A.M.E. Church where she met other city dwellers. Her second marriage did not last long. Apparently, her second husband John Davis was not faithful or reliable. So at the age of 35, Breedlove realized something had to change. During an interview with the New York Times, she said, “I was at my tub one morning with a heavy wash before me. As I bent over, I said to myself, ‘What are you going to do when you grow old, and your back gets stiff?’ Who is going to take care of your little girl?”

The Walker System

In 1904 Breedlove discovered a hair treatment that helped with her scalp issues. Nearly three years after she had become an advocate for the fantastic hair grower, she struck out on her own. She moved to Denver and soon married Charles (C.J.) Walker in 1906. As a new wife for the third time, she started a new business and officially changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker. Based on a dream, Madam Walker ordered ingredients from Africa to formulate her first product called Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. Charles helped to promote the hair grower in black newspapers nationwide, and Madam Walker traveled the country working feverishly to differentiate her brand. She would go from house to house and from church to church to recruit and train a massive sales force. She taught women to be refined and empowered them to have financial security.

The odds of a black woman finding any measurable success during the Jim Crow era of the early 1900s is incredible. Most people of color were relegated to either work as a sharecropper, live in fear of their life, or work in other low-wage jobs. Nevertheless, Madam Walker defied the odds by stepping out on faith to create a lifestyle adequate to taking care of her daughter. However, the desire turned into not only helping thousands of others do the same but elevating her to become the first self-made black female millionaire in America.

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