One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era

Trista - October 4, 2018

Given the United States’ history of racism and sexism, it may surprise many to learn that the first self-made millionaire was a Black woman who started her own company in the midst of the Jim Crow era. Madam C. J. Walker founded a line of hair care products especially for Black women, bearing her name, that became a massive hit in the United States. She had a factory in Indianapolis, Indiana that later was renovated into a theater named after her.

She is still a name of influence in the beauty community, with a Black-owned brand relaunching the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture line in collaboration with her great-granddaughter.

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
A photograph of Madam C. J. Walker and friends in a car. Wikimedia

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
Walker’s manufacturing company, Indianapolis, Indiana 1911. Wikimedia

1. Madam C. J. Walker Was the United States’ First Female Self-Made Millionaire

Madam C. J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, started her company, Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing, as a small door-to-door and mail-order business out of Denver, Colorado. Walker and her then-husband, from whom she took her surname, used his experience in selling newspaper ads to market her business of hair care products targeted towards Black women.

The business became especially popular with the Black population of Indianapolis, Indiana leading Walker to establish her manufacturing center in the city. The company was also popular with Black communities in Harlem, New York, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At its height, the business had over 20,000 employees nationwide. The high profits made Walker the first ever female (not just African-American woman, but any female) self-made millionaire in United States History.

Walker herself commented on her success, “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it – for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.” When she died in 1919, her business was worth over one million dollars, which would be over 14 million dollars today. She also left a lasting legacy of philanthropic work benefiting the arts, which was continued by her daughter.

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
A photograph of Walker’s home at 67 Broadway in Irvington, New York. Wikimedia

2. She Walker Was One of the Most Successful Black Entrepreneurs in US History

When Madam Walker died in 1919, her estate was worth over $600,000 – the equivalent of more than 8 million dollars today. She was the wealthiest African-American woman in the United States at the time of her death. In her tragically short life of only 51 years, Walker rose from the orphaned daughter of slaves to the first self-made female millionaire in the United States. Few Black Americans have been as or more successful in the century since.

Madam C. J. Walker was one of five children born to former slaves who had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. She was the first and only of their children to be born free; her siblings were born before the Emancipation Proclamation. She was orphaned in early childhood and raised by her sister, Louvenia. She married at 14 to escape an abusive brother in law and worked grueling jobs to feed her child when her husband died only two years later.

In 1913, her daughter opened a townhouse and salon in Harlem, New York designed by black architect Vertner Tandy. Her daughter remarked, “There is nothing equal to it. Not even on 5th Avenue.” This rapid rise from the penniless child of freed slaves to opening a grand building to rival the penthouses of 5th Avenue was unparalleled at the time, and still quite rare for Black Americans. Her story is often compared to Oprah due to the similar rise from a difficult child to massive wealth despite the constant presence of racism and sexism.

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
The packaging from Walker’s Vegetable Shampoo. World of Faces

3. Madam C. J. Walker Made Her Fortune on Hair Products for Black Women

In the 1890s, Madam C. J. Walker began experiencing scalp irritations that caused most of her hair to fall out. In addition to consulting with physicians, she experimented with numerous home remedies and homemade concoctions. She also tried the products of Anne Malone, another Black woman entrepreneur. She became a saleswoman for Anne Malone’s hair products, moving to Denver where she met her third husband Charles Joseph Walker.

It was in Denver, after her marriage, that Sarah Breedlove changed her name to Madam C. J. Walker and began selling her own Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing treatment. She claimed that the recipe came to her in a dream. Her husband aided her growing business with his knowledge of marketing gleaned as a newspaperman in St. Louis. She also traveled extensively through heavily black areas of the South and Northeast to promote the product.

A clever marketing person in her own right, Walker did extensive demonstrations of her products in the churches and lodges where Black people gathered. She also devised her own marketing and promotional strategies, like hiring women exclusively to be the door-to-door salespeople of her products. Walker also trained her saleswomen as “hair culturists” to provide a uniform experience for anyone interacting with her employees. She eventually expanded her range of products to numerous shampoos, salves, and balms.

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
A photograph of Annie Malone, Walker’s mentor, in 1921. Wikimedia

4. She Became Her Mentor’s Biggest Competitor

Madam C. J. Walker began her career in the haircare industry working for fellow Black female entrepreneur Anna Turnbo Malone. Malone sold numerous hair care products including hair growers, non-damaging straighteners, and more door-to-door. Walker began working for Malone as a salesperson in Denver, Colorado in 1905. After a disagreement over unknown issues, Walker left Malone’s company and started selling competing products in a similar door-to-door fashion.

Walker’s first product was the Wonderful Hair Grower, which shared a name with Malone’s Wonderful Hair Grower. This similarity led Malone to copyright the name of her future products. She trademarked her products under the name Poro, a combination of her and her sister’s married names at the time. Walker and Malone were directly competing for the same demographic: Black women. Before these businesses started, many women turned to unsafe home remedies like flammable animal fats to condition and straighten their hair.

While Malone continued to be successful, opening a beauty college and engaging in extensive charity work, her business was weakened by a 1920 divorce that saw a considerable portion of her wealth given to her ex-husband. Malone was a multi-millionaire for a period of time, but Walker was ultimately far more successful regarding the profit, scope, and longevity of her business.

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
A photograph of Madam C. J. Walker as a young lady. Typepad

5. Madam C. J. Walker Had a Turbulent Early Life and Was Orphaned at 7 Years Old

Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867 on a cotton plantation. Her parents, Owen and Minerva (Anderson) Breedlove, were both former slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. She was the youngest of five children, and the only one born free after the Emancipation Proclamation. Her mother died, possibly of cholera, when she was only five. Her father re-married but died shortly after. After becoming orphaned, she moved to Mississippi and found employment as a domestic worker.

At only 14, Sarah married her first husband, Moses McWilliams. It is believed that she may have married young to escape the abuse of her brother-in-law. She had her only child, a daughter named Lelia McWilliams, in 1885. Moses died when Sarah was only 20 and her child a mere 2. She was forced into hard labor to support her daughter. She remarried in 1894 but left her second husband in the early 1900s.

It wasn’t until she moved to Denver, Colorado in 1905 that she found her calling in the hair care industry and met the man who would become her third and final husband and business partner, Charles Joseph Walker. However, this marriage ended in divorce as well with the couple separating in 1912 after six years of marriage. Her daughter, who continued her philanthropic legacy after her death, adopted Charles’ surname and became A’Lelia Walker.

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
Some of Madam C. J. Walker’s beauty products at The Women’s Museum in Dallas, Texas. WikiCommons

6. Her Salespeople Were All Women

The vast majority of salespeople in the early 1900s were men, a trend which continued for decades. However, Walker wisely believed that women would respond better to pitches for beauty products that came from people of the same gender who actually used the products. This idea led Walker to develop a workforce that, at its peak, was comprised of over 20,000 women in the United States, Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica.

Walker also believed in the importance of carefully training her employees on the products they would be selling. She established a beauty school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, named Lelia college after her daughter, to train her “hair culturists,” i.e., salespeople. Additional beauty schools were opened in Indianapolis, Indiana and Harlem, New York. These schools taught Black women how to style their hair and use the Walker line of products.

The door-to-door saleswomen of Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing were given a uniform of a black skirt and white blouse to provide them with a uniform appearance, not unlike the uniformed beauty salespeople of Sephora today. They were also given black bags in which to carry samples and the products. One can imagine that women in predominantly Black neighborhoods would have been excited to see a woman in this uniform approaching their doors!

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
A tin of Walker’s Tetter Salve. Antiques Nation

7. Madam C. J. Walker Didn’t Start Her Business Until Later In Life

While today’s startups are often thought of as being run by young entrepreneurs, Madam C. J. Walker didn’t get her start until she was 38, already a mother and on her third marriage. In all ways, she defied the expectations of what an entrepreneur should be. She first started her business after leaving her position as a saleswoman at Anne Malone’s company, which also sold hair care products to Black women.

The combination of decades of problems with her own scalp and hair, a falling out with Anne Malone, and the marketing experience of her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, created a perfect storm for an immensely successful business. In the first year of her business, Walker went on an incredibly extensive driving tour through the US South and Southeast, visiting predominantly Black areas to provide demonstrations and samples of her hair care products.

Walker claimed that the inspiration for her first product, the Wonderful Hair Grower, came to her in a dream. Anne Malone seemed to disagree, as she immediately began trademarking her products, including her Wonderful Hair Grower, under the name Poro to prevent infringement and illegal competition. It is believed that Walker and Malone never reconciled after their falling out and the massive success of Walker’s competing business venture.

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
An advertisement for Walker’s products. Lynn Emery

8. She Gave Back to Her Community

Madam C. J. Walker was a prolific philanthropist, giving away large portions of her earnings to various causes in the arts and social justice. One of her first charitable endeavors was donating $1,000 (almost $26,000 today) to the “colored” Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) center in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1912. In the 1910s, the YMCA had yet to integrate and would not do so until 1946 officially, but much later in practice.

Walker also donated money to the Tuskegee Institute, part of the private, historically black college Tuskegee University. The Tuskegee Institute would later become famous for its incredibly unethical and immoral experimentation on Black men with syphilis without their consent. Walker also donated money to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) anti-lynching efforts.

The largest beneficiaries of Walker’s generosity were the arts and historic preservation. Walker’s single largest donation was to the preservation fund for abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ historic home in Anacostia, Washington D.C. She also left over $100,000 (over $2.3 million today) to various artistic causes and orphanages. Her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, continued her mother’s dedication to artistic and social causes, becoming a noted philanthropist for the arts in her own right.

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
Madam C. J. Walker was the first self-made millionaire in the United States. Madam Walker Family Archives/ Biography

9. She Fought for an Anti-Lynching Bill

Madam C. J. Walker was a strong proponent of anti-lynching efforts. She gave the NAACP their largest single donation, at that time, of $5,000 (over $62,000 today) to support their anti-lynching efforts. In July 2017, Walker was spurred to additional action after a mob of whites murdered more than three dozen Black Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois. The three-day race riots in the city ultimately left almost 200 Black Americans dead.

The NAACP and Harlem, New York community leaders responded to the race riots by drafting an anti-lynching bill for the United States Congress. Walker strongly supported the bill and even traveled to Washington D.C. to ask for President Woodrow Wilson’s support. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given both the tepid police response to the race riots and Wilson’s unabashedly racist outlook, he did not support the bill, and it died on the floor in Congress.

Lynchings continued for decades in the United States, with the murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in 1955 being the most widely recognized example. One of the last lynchings in the United States was within many of our lifetimes, occurring in 1981 in Mobile, Alabama. Michael Donald, 20 years of age, was beaten and lynched by several members of the Ku Klux Klan. One of his assailants was ultimately executed for the murder, becoming the only KKK member to be executed for his crimes in the entire 20th century.

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
A photograph of W. E. B. Du Bois, a friend of Walker’s, in 1918. Wikimedia

10. She Was Friends With Other Black Visionaries

As her company and wealth grew, and perhaps in response to the racial violence in neighboring Illinois, Madam C. J. Walker relocated her base of operations from Indianapolis, Indiana to Harlem, New York. Early 20th century Harlem was a Mecca for Black artists, activists, and visionaries. She became involved in the social and political scene soon after moving to Harlem and became friends with many of the prominent Black figures of the era.

Walker counted W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Mary McLeod Bethune among her friends in the fight for equality and justice. W. E. B Du Bois is best known for his incredible writings The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction in America. He and fellow activist Booker T. Washington came down on opposing sides on the fight over Washington’s proposed Atlanta compromise that would have had Black Americans submitting to white political rule. Du Bois wanted nothing less than full and equal rights for Black Americans.

Mary McLeod Bethune was an educator and civil rights activist who founded a private school for Black children that eventually went on to become Bethune-Cookman University, a private historically black college. Like Walker, McLeod was born to former slaves and worked in cotton fields herself as a child. She went on to work on the presidential campaign of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and served as a member of his Black Cabinet.

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
A beauty handbook produced by Walker’s company. Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture

11. She Created a Convention for Female Entrepreneurs

In 1917, Madam C. J. Walker organized a training and development conference for her saleswomen called the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents. While it was for her agents specifically and not women as a whole, it is still believed to be the first professional development conference exclusively for women. The meeting took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The event had over 200 attendees and trained them on entrepreneurial skills as well as sales and products. During the convention, Walker gave prizes to the women who had sold the most products as well as those who recruited the most sales agents, just as in modern sales conferences. As part of her commitment to philanthropy, Walker also gave out awards to the sales agents who had donated the most money to charitable causes in their communities.

Later instances of the conference occurred under the new name of the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culturists Union of America. In addition to her meeting, she also addressed the National Negro Business League to highlight her experience as a female entrepreneur, sharing the inspirational words “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
The commemorative US stamp honoring Walker. AARP

12. She Continues to Be Recognized for Her Accomplishments

Madam C. J. Walker died in 1919 at 51 years of age from hypertension and kidney issues. Her legacy is remembered through many historic preservations and tributes. Her papers and writings are preserved at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis. Two of her homes are part of the National Register of Historic Places. Her New York home, Villa Lewo, was placed on the registry in 1976 and is privately owned. Her Indianapolis factory, which was converted to a theatre center in the 1920s, was placed on the registry in 1980.

In 2006, Black playwright and director Regina Taylor wrote a play on Walker called The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove. It premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Walker was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. She was also commemorated with a United States Postal Service Stamp in 1998 as part of its Black Heritage series.

Many scholarships are given to Black women in honor of Madam Walker and her legacy. The National Coalition of 100 Black Women has an annual luncheon in honor of Walker and awards scholarships in her honor. The Spirit Awards help fund the Indianapolis theatre named after her, and also give out awards in recognition of entrepreneurship, philanthropic work, civic engagement, and the arts.

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
A photograph of the Walker Theater Center in Indianapolis. Wikimedia

13. Her Indianapolis Factory Became a Theatre Center Named After Her

At 617 Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis, Indiana stands the Madam Walker Theatre Center. The last surviving historic building on its street, the Theatre Center was one the home of Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing’s production facility. It still has much of its original architecture and stands out as a beacon for historic preservation in a block that has otherwise been renovated. While it started as a theatre, the Walker Center has grown to become a non-profit dedicated to ensuring her legacy of supporting African-American culture and equality continues in Indianapolis.

Numerous Black entertainment icons have graced the stage of the theatre over the years including Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Patti LaBelle, Michael Bolton, and Lena Horne in addition to local jazz legends. African-American artists have been heavily featured to promote and preserve the legacy of Black culture.

The building can be rented for social events and hosts an annual Spirit Awards ceremony that recognizes local leaders who practice philanthropy, civic engagement, social justice, and community support. The 501(c)3 nonprofit that runs the theatre center has as its mission preserving the legacy of Madam C. J. Walker and her impact on both the philanthropic and African-American communities of Indiana.

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
A photograph of the National Women’s Hall of Fame. RocParent

14. Madam C. J. Walker Was Inducted Into the National Women’s Hall of Fame

The National Women’s Hall of Fame is an American organization founded in 1969 by a group in Seneca Falls, New York, the location of the 1848 women’s rights convention. The Hall was initially hosted by Eisenhower College until 1979 when it renovated a historic bank building in Seneca Falls which became the permanent home of the Hall of Fame exhibition. The Hall inducts women annually through a rigorous selection process that examines the women’s contribution to social or cultural change, the arts, or other areas of impact and have achieved lasting cultural relevance.

Madam C. J. Walker was inducted in 1993, only 24 years after the Hall was founded. She joined her friend Mary McLeod Bethune as an honoree. Other notable members include Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, and Sally Ride.

Of Walker, the Hall had to say, “As the wealthiest African-American woman of her time, Walker used her prominent position to oppose racial discrimination, and her massive wealth to support civic, educational and social institutions to assist African-Americans.” They also noted the unique role of her women’s conferences, saying “Walker encouraged women’s economic independence by training others and by serving as a powerful role model.”

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
A photograph of Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia Walker. Wikimedia

15. Madam C. J. Walker’s Daughter Continued Her Legacy of Philanthropy

Madam C. J. Walker’s only daughter, A’Lelia Walker, born Lelia McWilliams in 1885, played a huge role in her mother’s business. She was central to the decision to open an additional beauty training studio in Harlem and lived in a beautiful townhouse in Harlem to oversee the New York operations. A’Lelia became a fixture of the Harlem art scene after moving to New York, and soon followed in her mother’s footsteps of philanthropy in the arts.

A’Lelia’s townhouse was frequented visited by popular jazz and ragtime musicians, artists, politicians, actors, and poets. Like her mother, she befriended many Black visionaries of the time. Her townhouse came to be known as The Dark Tower and was essentially an American version of the French cultural salons of old. Patrons and artists mingled freely with each in her home.

Until her death in 1931, The Dark Tower served as a safe space for all manner of artists. Her mother would doubtless have been proud of her daughter’s dedication to protecting and encouraging artists throughout her life. The Dark Tower itself was a result of patronage of Black artists, as Black architect Vertner Tandy, the first Black licensed architect in New York and founder of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, designed the building.

One of America’s First Self-Made Millionaires Was a Black Woman Who Started a Company Amidst the Jim Crow Era
A photograph of products from Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture. Beauty Packaging

16. Her Company Still Exists Today

In 2013, Black-owned beauty company Sundial Brands purchased Madam C.J. Walker Enterprises, which contained the rights to the name and products. The original company had ceased production in 1981. Sundial’s owners collaborated with Madam C. J. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, named after her great-grandmother, to help develop the re-launch of Walker’s line of products.

In 2016, more than a century after the original products hit the market, the Madam C. J. Walker brand came back to life as the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture. The range of hair care products includes options for every hair texture and sells online as well as in Sephora stores and the Sephora website. The products were well reviewed and had seen substantial sales thus far. The Madam Walker Theatre Center actively helps to promote the new line of products as part of their efforts to ensure her legacy continues.

Sundial Brands also operates Shea Moisture and Nubian Heritage, both of which are focused on creating beauty products for Black Americans. They are part of a growing culture of Black-owned beauty brands such as Beauty Bakerie, Juvia’s Place, Pat McGrath, Iman Cosmetics and Rihanna’s Fenty. Given the lack of diverse foundation shades, cosmetic models and hair products in traditional brands, it is no surprise that Black entrepreneurs are seizing the opportunity to provide much-needed products.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“15 Incredible Facts About Madam CJ Walker, The First American Female Millionaire” Amanda Sedlak-Hevener, Ranker. N.d.

Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture. 2018.

“A legacy reborn: Madam C.J. Walker hair products are back” Cara Anthony, The Indianapolis Star. October 2016.

“Madam C. J. Walker: A Brief Biographical Essay” A’Lelia Bundles, N.d.

Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair, eds. Indiana’s 200: The People Who Shaped the Hoosier State. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press. 2015

“About Us.” Walker Theatre Center staff. 2018

“Walker, Madam C. J.” National Women’s Hall of Fame staff. n.d.