African-American Studies

Madam C.J. Walker Was America's First Female Self-Made Millionaire

The story of Madam C.J. Walker has been called "one of the most spectacular rags-to-riches stories in U.S. history." Born on a Louisiana plantation in 1867 and orphaned at age 7, this inspirational trailblazer created a cosmetics empire as a single mother.

Her Inspiring Story

Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867 to two sharecroppers on the same Louisiana plantation where they had been enslaved since before the Civil War. By age seven, Breedlove was an orphan. However, this young girl would grow up to become Madam C. J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in the U.S. Not only did Walker start her empire after a childhood rife with loss, discrimination, and abuse, but she did it all as a single mother.

In the 1890s, Walker began to experience hair loss and looked hard for a solution. She experimented with home remedies and store-bought products and consulted her brothers who worked in a barbershop. She eventually developed Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula that she began peddling around the country. From there, her business continued to grow, as word of Walker's product spread among African-American women. "There is no royal flower-strewn path to success," Walker reportedly once said. "And if there is, I have not found it, for if I have accomplished anything in life, it is because I have been willing to work hard."

Her Enduring Impact

Walker died on May 25, 1919. The next day, The New York Times ran her obituary. "Her death recalled the unusual story of how she rose in twelve years from a washerwoman making only $1.50 a day to a position of wealth and influence among members of her race," it said. "Estimates of Mrs. Walker's fortune had run up to $1,000,000. She said herself two years ago that she was not yet a millionaire, but hoped to be some time, not that she wanted the money for herself, but for the good she could do with it. She spent $10,000 every year for the education of young negro men and women in Southern colleges and sent six youths to Tuskegee Institute every year. She recently gave $5,000 to the National Conference on Lynching."

A century after her death, Walker is still inspiring female entrepreneurs. "You can't talk about the history of black hair care or business without talking about Madam C.J. Walker," Lori L. Tharps, co-author of "Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America," told USA Today. "Her genius was not so much her products, but the marketing and the idea of giving black women the gift of pampering themselves, of allowing them to take pleasure in cosmetics and hair grooming."

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast

Learn more about Walker in "On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker" by A'Lelia Bundles. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto August 18, 2016

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.