Madame C.J. Walker, On Her Own Ground


Madame C.J. Walker was a strong black woman born on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisianan. Walker was originally named Sarah Breedlove. Born only a few years after the end of the Civil War and living during Jim Crow and Black Code Laws, Madame Walker would grow up to be an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, political activist, and become one of the first African American women to be a self-made millionaire.

Sarah Breedlove was the first free-born child of her family, born on the same plantation where her parents had been enslaved. As a child, Sarah worked beside her parents in a Louisianan cotton field. By seven years old, her parents had died. At fourteen, she married to escape cruelty and abuse. At seventeen, she had her daughter and only child. At twenty, Sarah’s husband died. Life came quickly, hard, and unrelenting.

In order to find a new home and life for herself and her daughter, Sarah moved to St. Louis where her brothers had established themselves as barbers. For nearly the next two decades, she worked to provide for her daughter as a wash woman. The pay was miserable, barely providing for her daughter’s education. With education being of an utmost importance to her, even while working long, hard hours, Walker managed to take night classes and provide education not only for her daughter, but for herself, as well.

In the 1890’s, Walker developed a scalp disorder that caused her to lose much of her hair. It is interesting to note, that Walker credited her hair-saving formula to prayer. She prayed to God to save her hair. For three nights, she dreamed that a big African man visited her and told her the ingredients to mix into her formula. With her hair growing back, demand for her formula increased and she sold the product door-to-door.

Madame C.J. Walker Company

By 1910, Madam C.J. Walker built her company headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana. Already building a name and making money, she donated $1,000 (nearly $20,000 today) to build a black YMCA in the city. She began to make black newspapers featuring her story. People were amazed that a black woman would not only have the means to donate that amount of money, but would be willing to give back to her community. To the black community, she was a hero...and inspiration...and role model.

The Indianapolis factory manufactured Walker’s hair products and cosemetics, but was also known to train sales beauticians—providing them with education and skills. These beauticians would become known as “Walker Agents” and were well known in black communities throughout the United States. Communities looked at Walker Agents as symbols of “cleanliness and loveliness.”


In 1916, Walker moved to New York where she began to work as a social and political activist. Having developed a platform and fame, she understood that she had the power to make a difference for others. In doing so, she became a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Her work encircled educational scholarships, homes for the elderly, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She also founded the National Conference on Lynching in an attempt to raise awareness and abolish the violent act.

Madame C.J. Walker died on May 25, 1919, at the age of 51 at her home, Villa Lewaro. When she died, she was the sole owner of her business, valued at more than one million.

In her words:

“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.”
                    ~Madame C.J. Walker

She said these words to the face of Booker T. Washington who continually dismissed her and would refuse to let her speak at a conference. But after these words, he made sure to invite her back as a key note speaker.

On her own ground, indeed.

For more, you can read this biography written by her Great-Great-Granddaughter, A'Lelia Bundles.


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