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Sarah Breedlove was born in Delta, La., on Dec. 23, 1867. She was the daughter of Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove. Both had formerly been enslaved. She was an orphan by the age of 7 and moved in with her older sister. At the age of 14, Sarah married Moses McWilliams. She maintained that she married young because of early hardships and in order to get a home of her own. In 1885, they had a daughter named Lelia, who later changed her name to A’Lelia and became a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Sarah’s husband died in 1887, leaving her to care for their daughter on her own.
Sarah then moved to St. Louis where three of her brothers lived and worked as barbers. She worked as a laundress and attended night school. Around this time, she started to lose her hair and noticed a lot of other black women had the same problem. Poor hygiene, diet and scalp diseases like dandruff led to brittle hair and hair loss. She experimented with many ingredients and finally came up with a secret formula to stimulate hair growth. Her “secret formula” included sulfur and a more frequent cleansing of the hair and scalp.
Sarah started selling her products door-to-door in black neighborhoods in St. Louis. Then she moved to Denver in 1905 and married Charles J. Walker. With her business becoming more successful, Sarah decided to adopt a new name – Madam C.J. Walker.
In 1910, Madam C.J. Walker set up a laboratory and beauty school in Indianapolis. At the height of her career, between 1911 and her death in 1919, her annual sales increased. Madam Walker was repeatedly referred to as a millionaire during the last few years of her life. However, in a New York Times magazine article and later in a letter to F. B. Ransom dated March 4, 1918, she specifically denied this. Certainly, by the end of her life, with total ownership of the company and with her holdings in real estate, her wealth could be measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
She had several thousand agents around the country to sell her full line of products for growing and beautifying hair. These included Wonderful Hair Grower, Temple Grower, shampoo, Glossine (pressing oil) and Tetter Salve, a remedy for the scalp.
Madam Walker was very generous and gave back to her community by contributing to African-American organizations in Indianapolis, such as the Senate Avenue Young Men’s Christian Association, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Flanner House. She did not limit her generosity to Indiana, however, and also gave money to the Tuskegee Institute and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Both Walker and her only child, A’Lelia enjoyed many genres of music including opera, classical, ragtime and blues. A major patron of the arts, Madam Walker supported African-American musicians, actors and artists.
Though most of her activities on behalf of blacks were aimed toward education and the building of personal and racial pride, Madam Walker fought against prejudice. In 1915, she began a lawsuit to protest discrimination at a theater in Indianapolis. She encouraged her agents to develop their political muscle and advocate for civil and human rights. In 1917, she urged the group to decry lynchings in the South. During World War I, she was a member of a delegation to Washington to protest the War Department’s segregationist policies to President Woodrow Wilson.
Madam Walker worked hard throughout her life, which took a toll on her health. Between traveling constantly, managing her business and speaking at many functions, she developed health problems, including high blood pressure and kidney failure. She became very ill while on a trip to St. Louis in April 1919. She did not recover and died on May 25, 1919, at her Irvington-on-Hudson, New York estate, Villa Lewaro.
Madam Walker’s legacy as an entrepreneur, social activist and patron of the arts is celebrated at the Madam Walker Legacy Center. Constructed in 1927, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark. Walker family members remain involved in the preservation of her legacy through the Madam Walker Legacy Center and through Villa Lewaro. They share her story through books, lectures and the Madam Walker Family Archives, a collection of Walker photos, business records, clothing, furniture and personal artifacts. Madam Walker’s descendants retain rights of publicity and registered trademarks associated with certain intellectual property. The official Walker biography website, which is maintained by her great-great-granddaughter and biographer, is www.madamcjwalker.com.
Significant research can be accomplished through materials found in the William Henry Smith Library at the Indiana Historical Society. Find images from the Madam C.J. Walker collection in the digital collection.
M0399 Madam C. J. Walker Papers, Indiana Historical Society.
M1250. Madam C.J. Walker Papers Addition, Indiana Historical Society.
Bundles, A’Lelia Perry, Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991/revised 2008.
Bundles, A’Lelia Perry, “Madam C.J. Walker Cosmetics, Tycoon” Ms. Magazine, July 1983, pp. 91-94.
Bundles, A’Lelia Perry, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker. New York: Scribner, 2001.
Koehn, Nancy F. Madam C.J. Walker: entrepreneur, leader, and philanthropist. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Pub., 2007.
Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem was in Vogue. New York: Vintage Books, 1982.
McKay, Claude. Harlem: Negro Metropolis. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1940.
Nelson, Stanley, producer, Two Dollars and a Dream DVD. New York, N.Y.: Filmmakers Library, [200?].
Pleiss, Kathy. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998.
Price, Nelson. Indiana Legends: Famous Hoosiers from Johnny Appleseed to David Letterman. Carmel, Indiana: Guild Press of Indiana, 1997.
Reynolds, Violet Cornelia Davis. The Story of a Remarkable Woman. Indianapolis: Universal Printing Co., 1973.
Rooks, Noliwe M. Hair Raising: beauty, culture, and African American women. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
Susannah Walker. Style & Status: Selling Beauty to African American women, 1920-1975. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2007.
Official website of Madam Walker products: https://www.mcjwbeautyculture.com/
Student-oriented website created by Madam Walker’s biographer and authorized by Walker family: http://www.madamcjwalker.com
Website for the Madam Walker Family Archives: https://madamwalkerfamilyarchives.wordpress.com/
Website for the Madam Walker Legacy Center: https://madamwalkerlegacycenter.com/
Web article about Villa Lewaro created by National Trust for Historic Preservation: https://savingplaces.org/places/villa-lewaro-madam-c-j-walker-estate#.XEidqVVKjcsINDepth Stories
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