Madam C.J. Walker: Biography, Inventions & Accomplishments

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the life and career of Madam C.J. Walker. Born the daughter of sharecroppers, her rags-to-riches story is astonishing by the standards of any era.

Who Was Madam C.J. Walker?

Do you know any millionaires? They may have inherited the money from parents or a relative, but much more likely, they had to work exceedingly hard to make all that money. Even then, the odds probably weren't as stacked against their making that much money as they were against Madam C.J. Walker, the first African American female millionaire. In this lesson, we will explore the life and work of this extraordinary woman.

Early Life

Madam C.J. Walker was born as Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana in 1867. The daughter of sharecroppers, Breedlove lived a stark childhood, especially after her parents died when Breedlove was only seven. Breedlove and her sister spent the rest of their childhood as farm laborers until Breedlove married her first husband at 14.

Breedlove gave birth to her daughter Lelia in 1885, and her husband died two years later. Breedlove then moved to St. Louis where she scraped together enough money helping in her brothers' barber shop to send her daughter to school.


In the 1890s Breedlove developed a scalp condition that caused her to lose most of her hair. She tried various remedies, and began experimenting with her own homemade recipes. After she moved to Denver in 1905, Breedlove changed her name to C.J. Walker, adopted the title of 'madam' and began selling her own solution for female hair loss: Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower.


Walker worked hard selling and marketing her product. She embarked on a whirlwind trip throughout the southern United States, selling her products door-to-door and performing demonstrations. Furthermore, she recruited women as local and regional agents to sell her products for her, and in 1908 she founded a school in Pittsburgh to teach her acolytes the correct way to do business and sell the products.

Walker's business was successful, largely due to her own tireless efforts and that of her more than 1,000 sales agents. By 1910, she had amassed enough capital to build a manufacturing plant in Indianapolis. Walker's line of hair products expanded along with her business, and soon she was selling all manner of hair care products in Central America and the Caribbean, too.

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