Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Monday, May 25, 2015

Madam C. J. Walker, American Entrepreneur

Sarah Breedlove, "Madam C. J. Walker" (died 25 May 1919)

Born in Louisiana on 23 December 1867, Sarah Breedlove was the first child of her parents, Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove, who had been enslaved, to be born into freedom. Orphaned at the age of six or seven (accounts differ), Sarah Breedlove worked with her sister in the cotton fields and, at age fourteen, she married, as she said, to avoid the mistreatment she suffered at the hands of a brother-in-law.

Sarah Breedlove, Madam C. J. Walker,
c. 1805-19
After the death of her husband in 1887, Breedlove moved to St. Louis to join her three brothers, who owned a barber shop. There she worked as a washerwoman, and although she made very little, she used what money she had to provide an education for her daughter A'Leilia, who had been born in 1885.

Suffering from a series of scalp ailments, Breedlove began experimenting with a number of hair products, some commercially produced and some home remedies. Eventually she moved to Denver, married Charles Joseph Walker, founded her own company, the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and started production of her own line of products, including Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower. 

While she became a very wealthy woman, Sarah Breedlove also contributed to numerous social and educational causes, including the YMCA, the NAACP anti-lynching campaign, and the National Association of Colored Women, among others. For a focus on her philanthropic work, you can read the entry on Madam C. J. Walker, part of the Philanthropy Hall of Fame at the Philanthropy Roundtable website, by clicking here. There is also excellent entry for Walker at the National Women's History Museum website, which you can access by clicking here.

There are many good biographies, including some for young readers, but you might want to start with the biography written by Sarah Breedlove Walker's great-great granddaughter, A'Leilia Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker.

By the way, although she is much less well known than Madam C. J. Walker, the American businesswoman Annie Malone offered Sarah Breedlove an important model of entrepreneurship and social conscience--Breedlove began her hair-care career selling Annie Malone's products, designed specifically for African-American women. Like Breedlove, Malone was also a noted philanthropist, her production plant offering the local community facilities for a variety of religious and educational purposes. Malone also became an important contributor to the YMCA, Howard University, and the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home. to learn more about Annie Malone, you can start by clicking here.

Update, 1 August 2018: Octavia Spencer will be starring in a limited-series drama about the life of Madam C. J. Walker for Netflix. The series is based on the biography by Walker's granddaughter, On Her Own Ground (mentioned above). The drama will be produced by SpringHill Entertainment, the company belonging to LeBron James.