From Slave to First Female Millionaire

There are very few rags to riches stories, such as that of Madden C. J. Walker[1], who was born to former slaves on December 23, 1867.  Born Sarah Breedlove, she was just one of six children born in Delta, Louisiana to Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove.  Sarah what is the fifth child of Owen and Sarah and the first to be born free.[2] 

Sarah, like most young black children, in the Deep South, had very little formal education.  In fact, the Louisiana state legislators refused to fund education for black children.   She attended a small church presided over by Reverend Curtis Pollard, a black minister who was a state senator during reconstruction.  Sarah’s parents both died when she was seven years old, and she had to go to work to help support her family.[3] 

At the age of 10 Sarah moved to Vicksburg Mississippi and by 14 she was married had one child, a daughter, however she was a widow by the age of 20 and living in St. Louis, Missouri. By 1900 she had discovered a treatment for African American hair and in July of 1905 she moved to Denver Colorado to start a business.  While not easy, she was able to create successful business and traveled over around the country to introduce her product, which was delivered by mail-order.[4] 

In February of 1910 she traveled to Indianapolis, Indiana and was decided to make it her home.  In Indianapolis, she built a factory, laboratory, and a home all next to each other.  The cost of the factory was approximately one million dollars, in 1910 or $28.6 million today and was a state-of-the-art facility.[5]  By 1912, the company had 1,600 black employees selling her products on commission, some of whom earned around $1,000 per week (the equivalent purchasing power of $28,000 today).

“Though she began by offering her formula door to door, Walker understood that that was not the way fortunes were made. She established a chain of beauty parlors throughout the country, the Caribbean, and South America.  She had her own factories and laboratories, said to be the most advanced of their kind.  Walker set up training schools in hair culture, and employed black women agents to sell the products—including hair growers, salves for psoriasis, and oils—on a commission basis.”[6]

In the company yearbook in 1938, it describes the company as, “The Madam C. J. Walker manufacturing company has gone on growing from year to year until now it is the world’s largest manufacturing enterprise, the racist outstanding industrial success because it was founded on, and continues to be operated on, the principles of unselfish service to all humanity and a full measure of quality and quantity to its every customer.”  This comment about unselfishness describes Madam Walker’s personally philosophy.[7]

Madam Walker died on May 25, 1919, at the age of 51 from Kidney failure and had previously moved to New York, New York.  After her death and the death of her daughter, who took over the company, W.E.B. Du Bois, criticized the company and made some false and harmful claims.  “On December 18, 1937, Du Bois used his column in the Pittsburgh Courier to criticize the Indianapolis-based Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company… The attack was part of Du Bois’s long-running critique of what he perceived as the failure of black businesses to address the basic needs of black Americans. Although Du Bois praised the accomplishments of the late “Ma dame Walker and her hair culture business” as “epoch-making,” he attacked the firm: “Since Madame Walker’s death the business has fallen, I have been told, mainly into the hands of white capitalists.” Further, the company had based itself “on the usual exploitation of labor.”[8]

Freeman B. Ransom, the company manager and attorney responded to these allegations.  “In an open letter to Du Bois published in the Pittsburgh Courier, he angrily protested the attack. “There is not now, or has there ever been,” Ransom insisted, “one share of stock of the Mme. C.J. Walker Mfg. Company owned by any white man” or ” ‘by white capitalists.’ ” Only “members of the Walker family” had ever held shares in the firm.”[9]

“Du Bois replied privately to Ransom on December 22, 1937: I am sorry that my reference to your company in the ‘Pittsburgh Courier’ did not altogether please you. You will remember that I did not say that the business had fallen into the hands of white capitalists. I said that I had been told it had. Nor was there anything in my statement or intention to decry or injure your business in any way. Most of us are engaged in work which is directed wholly or in part by white capital. That fact in itself is not at all derogatory. I merely mentioned the rumor in this case because the matter was of importance in the possible development of cooperative business among us.”[10]

Madam C. J. Walker was an amazing woman who personifies the American entrepreneurial spirit.  She was born to former slaves, married at 14 and a widow at 20, yet became the first female millionaire (according to Guinness World Records[11].  She advanced the cause of equality for African Americans and helped many of them make it to the middle class.

[1] Sarah changed her name to Madam C. J. Walker in memory of her husband Charles Joseph Walker when she started to promote her business.

[2] Rita G. Koman and TwHP Staff, “Two American Entrepreneurs: Madam C. J. Walker and J. C. Penney,” OAH Magazine of History 20, no. 1 (2006): 29.

[3] Ibid.

[4]A’Lelia. Bundles, “The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker,” History News 58, no. 1 (2003): 6-9.  Ms. Bundles is the great-great granddaughter of Madam Walker.

[5] “Madam C. J. Walker year book, 1938,”  Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, (1938).

[6] Darlene Clark Hine, “African American Women and Their Communities in the Twentieth Century: The Foundation and Future of Black Women’s Studies,” Black Women, Gender Families 1, no. 1 (2007): 8.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mark David Higbee, “W. E. B. Du Bois, F. B. Ransom, the Madam Walker Company, and Black Business Leadership in the 1930s,” Indiana Magazine of History 89, no. 2 (1993): 102.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 104.


Published by Mark King

Currently, Mark King works for the Marion County Public Defender’s Office in the Juvenile CHINS Division. He represents families that have become involved with the Department of Child Services. Like most people, Mark enjoys spending time with family and friends and enjoys golf, working out and traveling. He has been lucky with his career-- started as a prosecutor, joined the FBI, had a private practice and has appeared before the Georgia and Indiana trial courts, Indiana Court of Appeals, the United States District Court for both the Southern and Northern Districts of Indiana, and the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. Mark has a Juris Doctorate from Indiana University and a Master of Arts in Military History from Norwich University. His passion for history has pushed him to begin working on his second doctorate, a PhD in History. Mark is married and lives on the south side of Indianapolis.

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