Today in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana, the first female self made millionaire was born. Sarah Breedlove aka Madam C.J. Walker was the first free child born in her family. Both of her parents and all six of her older siblings were slaves on the Madison Parish Plantation owned by Robert W. Burney. Sarah was orphaned at seven years old and went to live with her elder sister. At 14, she married Moses McWilliams and had a daughter by the name of Leila McWilliams at the age of 17. At 20 years old, Sarah’s husband Moses died and she moved to St. Louis.
While in St. Louis, Sarah washed hair in her brothers’ barbershop. Her entire life she suffered from severe dandruff and other scalp conditions that made her develop baldness at an early age. The only hair care products around at the time contained heavy amounts of the harsh compound lye, which is horrible for your hair. Because of the lye, there was a high demand for hair care products that were catered to African Americans. At the 1904 World’s Fair, Sarah sold her first hair care products for Annie Turnbo Malone. While working with Annie Malone, she honed her own abilities and began to develop the products that would build her fortune.
She moved to Denver, Colorado to work on her own products. There she met and married Charles Joseph Walker, who worked as a newspaper advertising salesman. Directly after the wedding, she made her debut as Madam C.J. Walker and began her career as an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams. With advice from her husband, Madam C.J. Walker began to train other women to be “beauty culturists” and sell her products. In 1908, Madam Walker moved to Pittsburgh and opened Leila College to train future “beauty culturists” and by 1910, the business was profitable enough for Madam Walker to move to Indianapolis and open up and headquarters and factory for her business. Her business became very successful in the 1910’s, with her influence reaching outside of the United States to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica.
Before her death in 1919, Madam C.J. Walker donated thousands (which translate to millions adjusted to current rates of inflation) to charity branching to many different needs of the public. She left money to the NAACP, orphanages, institutions, and individuals. Upon her death, she donated two-thirds of her fortune to charity. She was considered the wealthiest African American woman in America. Her daughter A’Lelia Walker, formerly Leila McWilliams, inherited the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.