Madam C. J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, in Delta, Louisiana. Her parents, Owen and Minerva Breedlove, were freed from slavery following the American Civil War. With few other options, the Breedlove family remained on the plantation where they had been enslaved, working as sharecroppers and living in a one-bedroom cabin with their six children. Breedlove’s parents both died in the early 1870s, leaving the eldest of the children to care for the family. Even at a young age, she worked as a laundress. In April 1877, there was an escalation in violence and discrimination against African Americans in Louisiana as federal troops, who had been stationed there after the Civil War, left the state. That year, a poor harvest led the Breedlove children to leave their home and move to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Breedlove’s childhood was marred by poverty, a lack of access to education, and persistent incidences of racial terror against black people. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, African Americans in the South moved often, trying to make the promises of safety, equality, and economic opportunity come true. Sarah Breedlove was no exception. However, racism and discrimination meant those promises were not often kept.
While living in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Breedlove worked as a laundress. At the age of fourteen, she married Moses McWilliams. He died, likely in 1888, but not before Sarah gave birth to their daughter Lelia on June 6, 1885. Lelia later changed her name to A’Lelia.
Following the death of her first husband, Sarah and her daughter, Lelia, moved to Saint Louis, Missouri, where her brothers were running a barbershop. She met and married John Davis there in 1894.
While living in Saint Louis, Sarah joined the Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church and its Mite Missionary Society. She befriended Jessie Batts and C. K. Robinson, who connected her with some key social networks and organizations, including the Knights of Pythias and the Court of Calanthe. These groups helped her build business connections and develop her social skills, both primary factors in her future success.
To supplement her laundry income, Sarah sold beauty products manufactured by Annie Turnbo’s (later Malone) Poro Company. In 1905, she moved to Denver, Colorado, to work as a Poro sales agent. With this experience, she decided to start her own business. In 1906, after the end of her relationship with John Davis, she married Charles J. Walker, developed her first three products—Vegetable Shampoo, Wonderful Hair Grower, and Glossine—and marketed them under her new name, Madam C. J. Walker.