Walker, Sarah Breedlove

Walker, Sarah Breedlove (Madame C. J. Walker)

(1876–1919) businesswoman, philanthropist; born in Delta, La. Orphaned at the age of six, she was raised by an elder sister and married to "Mr. McWilliams" at age 14 in Vicksburg. Widowed at age 20 with a daughter, A'Lelia Walker, she moved to St. Louis and attended public night schools and worked days as a washerwoman. In 1905 she invented a method for straightening African-Americans' "kinky" hair: her method involved her own formula for a pomade, much brushing, and the use of heated combs. Encouraged by her success, she moved to Denver, Colo., where she married Charles J. Walker; she promoted her method and products by traveling about the country giving lecture-demonstrations. Her business became so successful that she opened an office in Pittsburgh (1908), which she left in charge of her daughter. In 1910 she settled in Indianapolis, where she established the headquarters of Madame C. J. Walker Laboratories to manufacture cosmetics and train her sales beauticians. These "Walker Agents" became well known throughout the black communities of the U.S.A. and the Caribbean, and they in turn promoted Madame Walker's philosophy of "cleanliness and loveliness" as aids to advancing the status of African-Americans. An innovator, she organized clubs and conventions for her representatives which recognized not only successful sales, but also philanthropic and education efforts among African-Americans. At her death she was sole owner of her business; one-third of her multi-million dollar estate went to her daughter—who herself became well known as a supporter of the Harlem Renaissance—the remainder to various philanthropies.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.