Madam C. J. Walker

Walker, Madam C. J., 1867–1919, African-American entrepeneur, b. Delta, La., as Sarah Breedlove. Thought to be America's first black female millionaire, this daughter of ex-slaves was orphaned at 7, working at 10, married at 14, and a widow with an infant daughter at 20. She worked as a domestic and laundress and later sold hair-care products. In her scant spare time she experimented and developed (1905) an ointment and system to stop hair loss in African-American women and create smooth, shiny coiffures. In 1906 she moved to Denver, married newspaperman Charles J. Walker, and adopted Madam C. J. Walker as her business name. She expanded her product line, notably with a "pressing comb," and the two began selling her wares door-to-door. They proved so successful that she was able to hire saleswomen and to open stores and a beauty college. She moved (1910) her factory to Indianapolis and herself (1913) to Harlem, where she separated from her husband. Within a few years she had created a cosmetics empire and earned a fortune. An honored figure in business and philanthropy, she endowed educational institutions and supported many organizations to aid the African-American community. Her daughter, A'delia Walker, 1885–1931, b. Vicksburg, Miss., as Lelia McWilliams, was a well-known cultural figure in the 1920s, maintaining a salon attended by many members of the Harlem Renaissance.

See T. Due, The Black Rose (2000); A. Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (2001); B. Lowry, Her Dream of Dreams: The Rise and Triumph of Madam C. J. Walker (2003)

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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