Sarah Breedlove, child of former slaves, was born in 1867 in rural Louisiana. Orphaned at age seven, she was married by 14, a mother at 17 and widowed at 20. After her husband’s death, she moved to St. Louis to be near her brothers who were barbers. She established herself as a washerwoman, little dreaming that the barber and beauty industry would one day make her American’s first woman millionaire.
In the late 1890s, Sarah was going bald. Like most women of the day, she only washed her hair once a month and had developed severe dandruff and scalp disease. She experimented with various compounds and developed a shampoo and salve containing sulphur which healed the condition.
An enterprising woman, she took the name of her late second husband, and, calling herself Madame C.J. Walker began to market these products under the name Madame C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair-Grower. In 1906, she started a company with headquarters in Indianapolis, using African-American women to help her sell her products. At one point she employed 3,000 workers.
Madame Walker soon found that she had become the first self-made woman millionaire in the United States. She built a large home on the Hudson River in New York, which is still standing. She was also one of the first Americans to own an automobile.
When she died in 1919, she was hailed not only as a millionaire but also as a philanthropist. She once said, “I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it. Don’t sit down and wait for opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
Her great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles has written a biography of Madame Walker, On Her Own Ground.