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Rags to riches: How C. J. Walker became America’s first self-made female millionaire

Rags to riches: How C. J. Walker became America’s first self-made female millionaire

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Women sitting on stone steps

Gather around the fire you history buffs, because we’re going to tell you a story about the first self-made female millionaire in American history. Her name is C. J. Walker. The ultimate rags-to-riches story, C. J. Walker’s life is one written synonymously with the hardship that laid the groundword for her legacy. A woman who constructed the foundation of self hair-care and blew the doors of entrepreneurship wide open. From the daughter of slaves to political activist, C. J. Walker was not only a businesswoman with fiery ambition, but a mother, a widow, and an orphan. In conjunction with the announcement of Octavia Spencer playing the millionaire an upcoming Netflix film, here’s a story for anyone feeling like life is getting you nowhere.

1. Born with freedom

Greatness is often born with humility or privilege, and for C.J. Walker, she was born with the definition of humility. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, Walker was born to a sharecropper family and six siblings, her sister, Louvenia, and four brothers: Alexander, James, Solomon, and Owens Jr. in Delta, Louisiana.

Madam C.J. Walker Portrait

CIRCA 1914: Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove) the first female self made millionaire in the world poses for a portrait circa 1914. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Walker was raised after the Emancipation Proclamation, where freedmen were embracing their newfound roles in American society. One where former slaves can own or rent land and create a profit and live on what they reap and sow. That dream was very much real for Walker’s family. However, her simple childhood filled with innocent carelessness would soon reach its end.

2. Shaky foundation

Though former slaves were granted freedom, people of color, specifically African-Americans, were susceptible to violent acts by night riders and the notorious Knights of the White Camelia, a group associated to the Ku Klux Klan. When Walker was old enough to go to school, her education was cut short due to the dangerous threats surrounding the livelihood of black folks in the south.

portrait of Madam C.J. Walker

(Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In her biography, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Time of Madam C. J. Walker, the accounts surrounding Walker’s education was brief, if not non-existent. “The hostility in schools for the Negro,” noted one traveler, “is…often very bitter and dangerous.” The biography notes that in some part of the state, “schools were torched, teachers harassed, even killed.”

3. Age of innocence lost

The Breedloves tried their best to shield their children from a life of strife and violence. However, what the Breedloves couldn’t prevent was their denial of an education. Due to lack of funds by Louisiana’s state legislature, the government refused to fund the education division.

image of the swamplands

(Wikimedia Commons)

Though she was too young to understand the impact of schooling, it didn’t deter her from being a hard worker. Without an education, Walker was left to help her family pick cotton, and perform other chores. Her reputation for her ambition and hard work would shape the woman she would become two decades later. However, Walker’s life would change drastically before she reached the age of ten.

4. Death and other misfortunes

At the tender age of seven, Walker’s mother — without warning — fell ill and died. It’s not known what specific illness took Mrs. Breedlove’s life, but in the year of her death a horrible outbreak of yellow fever, a disease spread by mosquito, ran rampant in Walker’s hometown. It was suggested that it was yellow fever that killed her.

mosquito biting into skin

(Flickr/Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)

Then, no more than eight months later, her father also succumbed to a mysterious illness and died, but not before re-marrying and trying the best he could in the circumstances of misfortune. It was all in vain. Aside from her younger brother, Owen Jr., Walker found herself vulnerable and alone.

5. Under his thumb

Without parents, Walker and her younger brother were placed under the care of their sister, Louvenia. Married with children of her own, what remained of Walker’s childhood was traumatic. In her biography, moving in a house ruled by her sister’s husband meant living under a roof of abuse.

bridge stretching over the river

(Pixabay/ddzphoto)

Walker, known to be reserved and stoic about her past, revealed only a single word about her brother-in-law: cruel. It was during that time that Walker moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi where she was put to work at the age of ten as a laundress, a “province of black women exclusively.” It was no secret that her brother-in-law saw Walker as a burden. He expected her to work while Walker was under his “care.” So, she worked and toiled.

6. The worst job on earth

What would you call the worst job on earth? Unless you’re a chatty-Cathy or a high-functioning extrovert, customer service (hell, hospitality, in general) raises the bar in today’s most-avoided job. But toward the end of the 19th century, being a laundress was not an easy gig. White women with even minimal expendable income would hire a laundress whenever they could afford it. It was the job nobody wanted. The task was time-consuming and laborious.

Black Woman Laundering On Fl Plantation

(Getty Images)

Everything was hand-washed, steamed, and hand-pressed. Walker’s hands were molded by the life of a laborer. Her arms firm from scrubbing, and hands dry and cracked from constantly washing with lye and other harsh cleaning chemicals. She worked hard, but all her wages were not for her to keep. She was just a contribution to her brother-in-law, paying for her inconvenience in his life. No more. She needed an escape, but not from a life of work. Far from it. When Walker turned fourteen, she’d had enough. She wanted out. She wanted to live a life away from the pain of her past. She saw an opportunity in a man named Moses McWilliams.

7. Desire for more

As Walker grew up, she was constantly exposed to the juxtaposition between luxury and grime. It was the stark contrast between wealth and poverty that made Walker desired and craved for the beautiful. A reporter who visited Walker’s lavish home in Harlem wrote, “She had an inordinate desire to move among the things of culture and refinement.” Who wouldn’t?

world locations

Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana. (Photo by: Prisma Bildagentur/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Walker’s longing for beauty was fueled daily as she walked past the grandiose manicured lawns and gardens of Vicksburg’s grand antebellum-styled houses. She would walk pass folk wearing gorgeous dresses, tailored suits, and well-fitted hats. If the homes didn’t inspire her, then it was the shop windows that caught her attention and further stoked her fire, which displayed “bolts of taffeta and dotted swiss, pastel hats and supple leather shoes.” Walker wasn’t just looking at the beauty of luxury and fashion, she coveted it. Walker at a young age knew what she wanted, and she wanted, more than anything, a life full of beauty.

8. Marriage is binding

We all look for a little escape now and again. Whether it’s a vacation in the tropics or swinging in a hammock. In Walker’s case, it meant getting married. “I married at the age of fourteen in order to get a home of my own,” Walker said the day she married her first husband.

A'Lelia Walker Getting a Manicure

A’Lelia Walker, daughter of Madame C. J. Walker, gets a manicure at one of her mother’s beauty shops. Madame C. J. Walker made a fortune from her chain of beauty shops which her daughter has inherited as well as the business. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

“Her intent, she consistently said, was pragmatic, her approach unhesitant.” Walker’s aim wasn’t to love, but for stability and security. Life with her husband was indeed stable and secure and was soon blessed with the birth of their only daughter, Lelia in 1885. She became the ultimate joy in Walker’s life. Things seemed to be going as it should, until tragedy strikes.

9. Death follows in her wake

Though their marriage was based on practicality, it didn’t mean it was an unhappy one. Walker had the family she wanted, a beautiful daughter, a supportive husband, and a life she could call her own. But her life quickly turned for the worst when Moses died. There are multiple rumors about how Moses McWilliams died, one of which was the outlandish theory that Walker killed her husband after a domestic dispute.

Horsedrawn Hearse

Pallbearers attend a glass-sided funeral carriage in Portsmouth, circa 1900. (Photo by F. J. Mortimer/Getty Images)

However, during Moses’s death in 1888, being a person of color in the South was the same as living a dangerous life. There were suggestions that Moses’s death was linked to the horrors of mob violence, as many black people at the time. In either case, Walker was once again left to fend for herself. What’s more challenging? She had to do it with her daughter by her side. It was the event of her husband’s death that would help propel Walker into the woman she was destined to become.

10. Orphan, widow, single-mom

To be a single mother is hard enough, but being a black and single mother in the 19th century is unfortunate. “I was left a widow at the age of twenty with a little girl to raise,” Walker later revealed. She was greeted once again with the unknown and lived hand-to-mouth, all while trying her best under dire circumstances.

Image of downtown St. Louis Missouri

(Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Walker had two options: She could either leave Vicksburg and start over with her older brothers in St. Louis, or go back to her brother-in-law’s home. Her decision wasn’t easy, and the thought of exposing her daughter to a brute like her sister’s husband made her seethe. She decided to take the chance to move to St. Louis without so much as a penny to her name. She was taking a chance, not for herself, but for her daughter. And what waited for her in St. Louis would take her to the next step of what would be her future.

11. An exodus of women

Walker wasn’t the only woman facing hardships at her time. At the turn of the century, there was an influx of women who were doing exactly what Walker was trying to do: avoid abusive relationships and start over. When she arrived at St. Louis, Walker decided to put herself to work.

Housework on the Farm by the Family

UNITED STATES – CIRCA 1900: African-American woman doing laundry with a scrub board and tub, African-American girl stirring pot with 3 other children on the ground watching, and a woman in the background spreading laundry (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

It was during this moment in her life that Walker had to make an important decision. She could either crumble under the burden of her hardships and work numbly like a sad-sap, or she could rise to the occasion, work hard, and provide for her daughter. She chose to live her life at full steam, her daughter being her motivation. She took the first step in starting life on her own.

12. Hello, St. Louis!

St. Louis was a city of opportunity, and Walker was in awe of the “riverfront metropolis.” At the time, St. Louis was home to Anheuser-Bush, the world’s largest brewery, and was the nation’s largest inland cotton market. It was a city of industry, and Walker was in the center of it all.

1900s 1910s 3 BOYS MIDDLE...

(Photo by Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

In St. Louis, Walker put herself to work and rented an apartment, a shoebox of a room compared to a modest studio. It was a place to sleep and eat, and that’s all it served. She employed herself as a laundress once again, making $1.50 a day ($40 today.) However, it wasn’t enough, especially if she wanted the best for her daughter, Lelia.

13. Education is a privilege

Walker, more than anything, wanted her daughter to have a proper education, something she couldn’t have for herself. She worked hard and took pride in her work. Walker was a firm believer that no matter what job you have, give it 110%. She knew her higher-ups would skirt her pay for every burnt shirt-tail or unwashed item of clothing, so she was meticulous with her work and paid attention to the details.

Women Working in Shirt Laundry

(Original Caption) The shirt Laundry room in the Cluett Peabody & Co. plant at Troy, N.Y. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

On Sundays, her only days off, Walker would attend church, and it was there that she met Sarah Newton, a black Oberlin College student graduate, and former public-school teacher. It was thanks to Newton that her daughter was able to receive room and board at a local public school. Walker learned an important lesson, in this world is not what you do, but who you know.

14. A moment of thought

Have you ever had that lightning bolt moment of clarity? There’s a certain point in your life where a sense of purpose and understanding strikes you at the most opportune time. It doesn’t have to be professional, it can in love, adaptability, or understanding of a complex situation. C.J. Walker had one of these exact moments. And if you think about it, Walker was in her early 20’s when she finally had her moment of clarity, “I was at my washtubs one morning with a heavy wash before me,” Walker quoted in her biography.

Broadway New York City Manhattan

(Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“As I bent over the washboard, and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds, I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’ this set me to thinking, but with all my thinking I couldn’t see how I, a poor washerwoman, was going to better my condition.” Little did Walker know; her thinking would give her a multi-million-dollar idea.

15. Rock Bottom

Walker was growing desperate. Between paying for her daughters’ education and struggling with living off her wages, she was bouncing between the streets and the safe-haven of the church, praying for an answer from a higher power. Her struggle between staying strong for herself and her daughter and managing the vulnerabilities of poverty formed dual identities.

Cat Sleeping Outside an Antique Store

Cat Sleeping Outside an Antique Store (Photo by Jerry Cooke/Corbis via Getty Images)

In her biography, her neighbors knew Walker as “Sallie” McWilliams, “a struggling laundress just like them. In her other vision, she was “Sarah,” a woman with dreams beyond anything they could imagine.” She dreamed of a better life, dreamed of comfort and being respected.

16. Mercy

Walker and her daughter knew what it meant to dance with the dangers of homelessness. Over the next year, she and Lelia would bounce from house to house, shelter to shelter, often twice or more. For the sake of her daughter, something needed to change. She needed help and thought she could find it in her second husband, John Davis. It would turn out to be one of the worst mistakes she could ever make. Believing, once again, that marriage was the only possible solution, Walker settled with a man who failed continuously to meet her needs and expectations.

A'Lelia Walker Observing Facial Treatment

(Original Caption) Harlem, New York: A’Lelia Walker is shown supervising a facial in one of Madam C.J. Walker’s many beauty parlors.

And because of the constant battle of racism in the South, it was hard for Davis to keep work. She was now supporting for two. Her husband was referred to as “fussy, mean and dangerous.” A drunk, Walker was subjected to physical abuse and he would mistreat her in a fit of rage. The stress of work, motherhood, and now being a wife once more, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The stress was getting to her.

17. Choosing “me”

An abusive, unfaithful drunk, John Davis left Walker for his mistress and like everyone else in her life, she was abandoned. However, this time, she wasn’t alone. While John Davis was chasing skirts, Walker found herself in the arms of savvy salesmen for the St. Louis Clarion, Charles Joseph (C. J.) Walker.

Madam C.J. Walker Driving

A photograph of Sarah Breedlove driving a car, she was better known as Madam C.J. Walker, the first woman to become a self-made millionaire in the United States, 1911. From the New York Public Library. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

Hey! That’s Madame Walker’s name! Yes, true. Madame Walker took on her husband’s name. She was known as Mrs. C. J Walker, but she later replaced the ‘Mrs.’ with ‘Madame’ in order to help promote her soon-to-be-multi-million-dollar venture. Though she was in the good hands of Mr. Walker, it didn’t erase all her worries.  She was still concerned about her daughter Lelia’s future.

18. A hair-raising idea

Walker would put a lower priority on her hopes and aspirations if it meant a good life for her daughter Lelia. Her daughter was becoming a young woman, and Walker looked hard into her daughter’s future and knew she wanted something better for her little girl. The idea that she would spend her life in servicing bars or taking up a washboard like her mother motivated Walker to save up enough money to send her daughter — with pride — to college in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Knox College in Tennessee

(Wikimedia Commons/ Brian Stansberry)

She paid handsomely for her tuition, working consistently so her daughter could have a better future. Her daughter’s success was hers. Her daughter’s attendance to college would soon inspire her. Watching her daughter excel in her education empowered Walker to pursue something she never thought she’d be able to obtain. Her own education.

19. Night school

Walker’s idea of wanting to better herself also meant educating herself. She knew she wasn’t meant for a life consumed with dirty laundry and a hot room. She saw something more for herself. Her hopes of an antebellum life lingered in her dreams, and though she didn’t know how to accomplish that dream, she decided the first step would to go to night school.

Practice school teachers at Howard University, Washington, D.C.

UNITED STATES – CIRCA 1900: Twelve African-American men and women posed outside. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

There, Walker was taught English, mathematics, and penmanship. She would do it three times a week while balancing a full-time job, supporting her daughter, and became engaged to a new man. This is the part where everyone starts slow clapping. 

20. Knowledge is power

Earning her education liberated Walker into accomplishing what she thought no washerwoman could ever achieve. Her confidence sky-rocketed, and soon she became a leader within her local church (anyone else wonders how she’s finding the time to do all of this?). Obviously, she was Type-A.

Inside of an old church

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Soon, Walker was not just an educated woman, she was a highly-ambitious individual with goals, intelligence, and was becoming a leader within her own right. Soon, she was collecting donations for those who were unable to provide for themselves. No longer was she the receiver, but a benefactor. However, though Walker was bettering herself, she couldn’t stop the stress of an active life. Stress and a lack of hair-care left Walker’s head of tight curls thin. She was losing her hair.

21. Hair culture

There’s one thing you need to understand about a woman’s hair. As much as we don’t want to admit it, hair is for many an indispensable part of feminine identity. Many women today sport the bald-look and that is in-and-of-itself a statement. But there is power in shearing away a woman’s tresses. It remains significant. And for Walker, it was a lifeline to what she thought was the center of beauty, especially in a time where black, cork-screw tight hair was more of an affliction than a beauty standard.

Beauty portrait of African woman with dreadlock hairstyle.

Beauty portrait of African woman with dreadlock hairstyle.

And if we remember from our previous pages, Walker had a craving for beauty. Losing her hair was not what she envisioned for a life of eloquence. At the turn of the century, washing was a luxury. Though the wealthy had access to baths and indoor plumbing, impoverished women would infrequently have the facilities to wash. The lack of hair-care brought several issues such as dandruff, eczema, lice, and even psoriasis. Combine that with working long hours, living in a shoe-box apartment, and providing for your only child? Yeah, luckily, it’s your hair and not your head.

22. Desperate to solve life’s question

Desperate to keep what remains of her hair, she tried every remedy she could think of. “Breaking off and falling out, I tried everything mentioned to me without result.” Her hair was more than vanity, it represented someone she wanted to be. She wanted to look confident and strong, not sick and meek. Soon, however, Walker’s experimentation lead her to the biggest franchise that would launch her out of poverty and into wealth.

A'Lelia Bundles is a descendant of Madam C. J. Walker, who was the first black woman millionaire in the United States.

(Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Walker met someone who would change her life: Anne Turbo. Turnbo had a background in chemistry and would help with Walker’s hair loss. The magic hair grower? Shampoo. Turnbo’s product not only saved Walker’s hair, but it also saved her life. With the help and encouragement of her husband, Walker became an agent for Annie Turnbo’s product. By doing so, Walker did something incredible.

23. The intern becomes the boss

Walker worked under Turnbo for a year before she decided to start her own business in 1905. While working under Turnbo, Walker learned a great deal about business and marketing. Taking what she learned from her experiences as an agent, she mustered up the courage to start her own hair-care brand.

Madam CJ Walker hair grower

(The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis /Wikimedia Commons)

And in an economy where wages plummeted, and self-started businesses were flourishing, Walker saw the opportunity and seized it. She packed up her things and moved to Denver where one of her sisters-in-law lived. She sent word that black women’s hair in Denver was in bad shape in the Rockies with the high altitudes and dry hair scalps. When she moved to Denver, a miracle came in the form of a life-changing dream.

24. Blessed by the motherland

One of the first things Walker did when arriving in Denver was marry. C. J. Walker and change her name from “Mrs.” to “Madame” She needed to create an image for herself and her new business. Her product, no more than a homemade remedy, needed to be refined if she wanted to push it in the market. Madame Walker prayed, and that night she had a dream.

photo of vintage hot comb

the illustration was published in the journal “Dames et des demoiselles” Paris 1878-1879 (Getty Images)

“A big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedies were grown in Africa, but I sent for it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.” Whether her dream was a publicity stunt or a marketing tool, it brought in the initial wave of buyers who wanted to try her African home remedy. Everyone went wild.

25. An instant hit

The African ingredient Walker referred to was coconut oil, which might have come from West Africa’s tropical coast. She created her product and named it “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower,” a product made of vegetable oil, beeswax, copper sulfate and precipitated sulfur for sanitation and healing, and carbolic acid as a disinfectant.

African Violet Blooms

A group of african violet flowers.

Violet extracts were used to hide the pungent sulfuric scent. Her initial investment was $1.25. When the public got her hands on her miracle hair grower, it became an overnight hit.  Though her product was popular, there were critics who were worried about something vital. Of course, there was always a critic. 

26. A hairy situation

The popularity of Madame Walker’s product grew rapidly in the eyes of the black community. It was so popular that many began to growing concern in Walker’s motive for success, mostly from critics, one of which was Booker T. Washington. That’s right, Booker T. Washington.

portrait of Booker T. Washington

(Library of Congress/Harris & Ewing)

Washington’s concern was that Walker’s product was just another straightener or a tool that would lead to “the internalization of white concepts of beauty.” Historically speaking, having “black hair” was an unattractive feature in a woman. Society’s constant chastising of a woman’s naturally curly hair soon had colored women chemically straightening their hair or buy bleach skin creams.

27. Further disputes

Madame Walker understood the concerns of her critics and reassured not just them, but her community, that her product was strictly for hygienic purposes and was sourced from their shared ancestral continent. Her reassurance created further success for her product. The cherry on top? Placing her product as a tribute to her African roots further prospered her loyalty with her clientele.

Four African American women seated on the steps of a building at Atlanta University, Georgia. Photographer Thomas E Askew (1850-1914). Published 1899-1900.

Four African American women seated on the steps of a building at Atlanta University, Georgia. Photographer Thomas E Askew (1850-1914). Published 1899-1900. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Her name secured, she did what every beginning entrepreneur did to advertise her product. She started knocking on doors. From going door-to-door, to placing her product in mail-order catalogs, Walker became a marketing queen. By 1910, she was ready to call in business investors. Madame Walker wanted to take her product to the next level.

28. No business other than her own

Madame Walker was a business pioneer. Her brand was in newspapers and the name held sophistication that was immortalized for decades. When she went to every big-time banker to further invest in her product, believing she could create a brand, and by extension, a company.

Portrait Of Two Young Women

(Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

But bankers weren’t interested in risking their investments to Madame Walker, no matter how popular her product was. They were making a big mistake. Madame Walker no doubt held her head up high and told herself she didn’t need the banker’s help in taking her brand to the next level. Instead, she decided to take a risk.

29. Self-investment

Rejected by bank after bank, Madame Walker decided to shrug off their negative nay-say and decided to put her money where her mouth was. She invested $10,000 ($260,000 today) of her personal funds, making her the sole shareholder of her own company: The Walker Manufacturing Company. She not only got a piece of her own pie, but she baked it and had it all to herself.

Madam C.J. Walker factory

(Wikimedia Commons)

According to PBS, Walker built her headquarters, a state-of-the-art factory, and school in Indianapolis where she hired and trained agents to sell her products. Want to know who her agents were? People her believed in her product, her own customers. Hiring women and providing them with a generous commission, Walker expanded her company and provided her agents a way out of poverty, an opportunity once given to her.

30. Uphill from here

Walker’s company trained up to 40,000 “Walker Agents,” collecting entrepreneurs from “hair-culture colleges” she founded, or programs created through already established black institutions. She even provided a program called the “Walker System” where her agents were educated in the various vegetable shampoos, cold creams, witch hazel, diets, and the controversy over hot combs.

African American woman.

African American woman, half-length portrait, seated. Photographic print gelatin silver. [1899 or 1900]. (Photo by: Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Walker created a multi-million-dollar business that emulated and empowered women. “I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself. I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race,” Walker said in a 1914 interview. In the end, Walker didn’t just give her employees a second chance, she also gave herself the chance to prove her self-worth when all the odds were stacked against her. Walker quoted in an interview, “I got my start by giving myself a start.” Through hard work, education, and never taking no for an answer, Madame C. J. Walker became the first self-made woman to become a millionaire in America.