In the early 1900s, Sarah Breedlove Walker’s dreams came true – literally. She had a dream where a man appeared to her and told her what ingredients to use to make a line of hair products for African-Americans. Her hair products were wildly successful, and Walker became the first African-American woman self-made millionaire and philanthropist.
Born in 1867 on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana, Sarah was the daughter of freed slaves and orphaned at just 7-years-old. She married at age 14 and found herself widowed and a single mother by the time she was 22.
Struggling to survive, Sarah and her daughter moved to St. Louis where she worked as a laundress. Sarah earned just enough to send her daughter to school and took evening classes whenever possible. She married a second time, but the marriage ended in divorce.
About that time, Walker developed a scalp condition that led to hair loss. She tried a variety of remedies to cure the condition without success. Sarah got a job selling hair products and moved to Denver, Colorado where she met Charles J. Walker, who would become her third husband. He worked in advertising and later helped promote her business.
One night, Sarah had a dream where a man appeared to her and told her what products to use to create a new hair product. When she woke up, she mixed up the concoction and worked it into her scalp. After a few weeks, she noticed her hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. The scalp problems that had plagued her cleared up. Sarah formed her own company in 1903, calling it “Madam C. J. Walker”.
The Madam C. J. Walker Company revolutionized hair care for African-American women. The company developed a system of hair care known as the Walker System and sold products directly to African-American customers. Sarah also hired a team of saleswomen, known as Walker Agents who used that direct sales model and worked door-to-door in their own black communities across the country. The company opened a beauty school in Pittsburgh followed by additional schools in other locations.
As the company grew, so did Sarah’s net worth. One year before women had the right to vote in America, Sarah became the country’s first female African-American self-made millionaire. She bought luxury homes including one called Villa Lewaro at Irvington-on-the-Hudson in New York. It was designed by black architect Vertner Taney, the first African-American registered architect in that state. It was located in an exclusive neighborhood. She also gave generously to multiple organizations including the NAACP, the black YMCA and funded scholarships at the Tuskegee Institute. In addition, she championed female employees and encouraged her employees to donate to local charities in their communities.
About a year after moving into Villa Lewaro, Sarah became sick while traveling. She died in 1919 of kidney failure caused by hypertension. The life of Madam C. J. Walker will be celebrated in an upcoming series set to premiere on Netflix this March. If you would like to learn more about Sarah Breedlove Walker, her amazing life and her company, Madam C. J. Walker, search Newspapers.com today!