The Real Story Behind America’s First Female, Self-Made Millionaire

When the Netflix historical drama Self Made premiered in March of 2020, millions of people worldwide heard Madam C.J. Walker’s name for the very first time. For those who have yet to watch the series, Madam Walker is the ultimate rags to riches story.

Sarah Breedlove at the age of 14 / Women learning how to do hair at Madam C.J. Walkers school / Madam C.J. Walker’s products next to hot combs

Photo by Everett Collection, Shutterstock / Source: Twitter / Pinterest

But what makes her even more impressive was her ability to overcome extreme adversity in a time where women, let alone Black women, were rarely seen in the white male-dominated business world. So just how did Sarah Breedlove rise to become Madam C.J. Walker, the first female, self-made millionaire documented in America?

This is the story of how one woman exceeded everyone’s expectations and built a company from the ground up, despite color divisions that ran deep.

An Inspiration for Everyone

No one summarizes her story better than Madam C.J. Walker herself. “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.”

Madam CJ Walker

Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Madam Walker was an inspiration to not only those around her but to generations to come. Her pure grit and determination proved just how powerful one woman’s dream could be. To fully understand the significance of her journey to success, we must start at the beginning, to a time where she was known as Sarah Breedlove.

Sarah Breedlove

Born on December 23, 1867, Sarah Breedlove was the first person in her family born after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, freeing slaves in the Confederate states. Sarah was born on a Louisianan plantation that had previously enslaved both of her parents and older siblings.

Sarah Breedlove as a child

Sarah Breedlove. Source: Pinterest

Sarah’s mother, Minerva, died when she was six years old. While the official diagnosis is unknown, historians believe she died from cholera, which was a widespread infection that killed tens of millions of people. Her father, Owen, remarried but died a year later from unknown causes. This left Sarah, an orphan at just seven years old. After her parents’ death, Sarah was sent to live in Mississippi with her sister Louvinia and her brother-in-law.

The Power of Education

While Sarah was technically a “free” child in the legal sense, she still faced extreme adversity. Racial divisions didn’t just disappear overnight, and Sarah received much racial and economic prejudice throughout her entire life. During her childhood, Sarah received only three months of formal education.

The Breedlove cabin in Delta, Louisiana

The Breedlove cabin in Delta, Louisiana.

These three months took place during Sunday school lessons at a church she attended. During the Reconstruction era, Black people in the former slave states realized that education was vital for their path towards achieving equality. While poverty and former slaveholders stood in their way, Black people still found a way to get an education, even if it was for a few months, by creating a series of schools at local churches.

Problems at Home

When Sarah moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, things were far from easy. At ten years old, Sarah took a job as a domestic servant, which had her picking cotton in the fields as well as helping inside the house. To make matters worse, her home life provided no escape from the difficulties at work. Louvinia’s husband, Jesse, was cruel and abusive towards Sarah.

Sarah Breedlove at the age of 14

Sarah Breedlove at the age of 14. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Although she was “free,” Sarah’s conditions weren’t very different from what her family had experienced on the plantation in Louisiana. Even at a young age, Sarah knew that she wanted something better for herself, but, at the time, the only way to escape her situation was to get married. So at the young age of 14, Sarah married a man named Moses Williams.

Her First Marriage

Sarah’s marriage to Moses was a means of escape. While historians, reporters, and even Sarah’s own great-great-granddaughter spent decades researching her life, they found little information about Moses. However, they do know that he didn’t provide her with the stability that she needed at the time. Their relationship was extremely tumultuous and even abusive at times.

A’Lelia Williams

A’Lelia Williams. Source: Pinterest

Some historians believe that she married Moses to escape her cruel brother-in-law, while others think that he was the one who forced her to get married. In 1885, when Sarah was 18 years old, she gave birth to their daughter, A’Lelia. Then two years later, their marriage dissolved, but the reason is unknown. Some have theorized that Moses died in a race riot, while others believe that Sarah left him.

A Turning Point

Regardless of the circumstances, Sarah and her daughter moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to be closer to her brothers. Her brothers had found work as barbers, which was seen as a slightly more esteemed profession than most, and they promised Sarah that she too would be able to find a job. They were right. Soon after Sarah and two-year-old A’Lelia moved to St. Louis, she found a job as a washerwoman, earning $1.50 a day.

Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker with Tiffany Haddish as A’Lelia Walker in Self Made

Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker with Tiffany Haddish as A’Lelia Walker in Self Made. Source: Netflix

Although this is nothing compared to today’s wages, it was enough to send A’Lelia to public school. It was important to Sarah that her daughter would have an education, a luxury that she never was able to experience for herself. But this didn’t stop Sarah from continuing her own education by attending night school whenever she could.

A Major Influence

Besides taking care of her daughter, working as a washerwoman, and going to night school, Sarah also became an active member of her community. She sang in her church choir, which was located close to her brothers’ work. The church was called the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church and had a reputation for providing its members with a grander, more international view on life.

Madam C.J. Walker standing in front of a home in Indianapolis

Madam C.J. Walker standing in front of a home in Indianapolis. Source: Twitter

Many of the women who attended this church were educated and from the middle class, which provided Sarah with a good group of women to surround herself with. She realized that she was more than an “illiterate washerwoman,” according to Sarah’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles. In an interview with BBC History Magazine, Bundles also said that these women really motivated Sarah to make something of herself.

Continuing Her Education

Sarah was also greatly influenced by the National Association of Coloured Women, or also known as the NACW. The NACW was a group of educated women who were dedicated to different social and political issues of the time. This group of women didn’t just inspire Sarah to continue her education. They were the inspiration for Sarah’s future philanthropy and social justice work.

Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker in Self Made.

Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker in Self Made. Source: Netflix

It was also during this time that Sarah met the man who would become her second husband, John Davis. John was also a laundry worker, and the pair were married in 1984. Like her first husband, not much is known about her second marriage. Through investigative research, Bundles believes that her great-great-grandmother was struggling financially at this point. Getting married was a way to have a more stable life for her and her daughter.

More Problems at Home

“So, she got married to a guy whom she thought was going to make life a little better,” Bundles said in an interview with Vanity Fair magazine. Sadly, Bundles believes this was not the case. By looking at Sarah’s daughter’s school records, Bundles believes that she can piece together a story about what happened during their marriage.

Tiffany Haddish as A’Lelia in Self Made.

Tiffany Haddish as A’Lelia in Self Made. Source: Netflix

One year, A’Lelia had perfect attendance, but her attendance was very spotty the next year. “I don’t know whether she was sick, or whether John Davis was acting up,” Bundles told Vanity Fair magazine. “But there was some upheaval in their lives, and then that marriage ends.” After nine years of marriage, Sarah and John divorced.

What Will I Do?

Sarah was 35 years old when she and John divorced in 1903. According to an article published by The New York Times in 1917, Sarah said that it was during this time that she became motivated to make something of herself. “I was at my tubs one morning with a heavy wash before me,” Sarah told reporters.

Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker in Self Made.

Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker in Self Made. Source: Netflix

“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?’” Adding to her woes, Sarah also started losing her hair. During the early 1900s, most Americans lacked indoor plumbing, which made bathing a luxury. According to Bundles, infrequent bathing caused many Black people to start losing their hair.

A Source of Inspiration

Around this time, Sarah became interested in improving her appearance and having a good healthy head of hair. Although her brothers were barbers, they didn’t have any advice or products that helped her hair from falling out. Instead, Sarah started experimenting with her own hair treatments at home.

Madam C.J. Walker’s hair before and after her discovery

Source: Twitter

The method that Sarah used to cure her scalp had actually been around for centuries. The remedy included more frequent hair washing and applying an ointment that contained sulfur. This hair treatment would later become the product that made Sarah the first documented female millionaire in the United States. In 1904, Sarah’s life changed when she discovered “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower” of Annie Turnbo Malone.

Annie Turnbo Malone

Annie Turnbo Malone was a Black entrepreneur with a background in chemistry. Originally from Illinois, she relocated her hair straightening business to St. Louis. For those who have seen the Netflix drama series, Annie was the inspiration behind the character Addie Munroe.

Annie Turnbo Malone

Annie Turnbo Malone. Source: Flickr

With interest in beauty and hair products, Sarah took a job selling Annie’s products to women in the Black community. It was around this time that Sarah met her third husband, Charles Joseph “C.J.” Walker, who was a savvy advertising salesman whom she knew from her time in Missouri. His sister lived out in Denver, Colorado and he explained to Sarah that the dry air of the Rocky Mountains dried out Black women’s hair. That’s when Sarah had an idea.

Meet Madam C.J. Walker

In 1905, the now 37-year-old relocated to Denver, Colorado. Although she was still employed as a saleswoman for Annie’s business, Sarah decided that it was time she started working on her own business. When Sarah wasn’t selling hair products, she was at home, perfecting her own hair formula.

Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker. Source: madamcjwalker.com

1906 was a huge year for Sarah, both personally and professionally. C.J. finally made the move to Denver, and the two finally got married. Sarah also officially changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker, with “Madam” acting as a nod to French women who were considered to be pioneers in the beauty world. With her third husband’s encouragement, she also officially stepped out of her boss’s shadow and started marketing herself as an independent hairdresser and cosmetic cream retailer.

Business in Jim Crowe

Just for a little context, Madam Walker created her business during a time when the color divide ran deep. According to an article by PBS, most Black people were excluded from trade unions and had a hard time finding investors. The article also expressed that the only way Black people could actually start a business was if the startup costs were low, and their products could be marketed to Black people.

Madam C.J. Walker’s wonderful hair grower

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Luckily for Madam Walker, a beauty product business fit the bill. Unlike today, large corporations didn’t really consider Black needs for hair and beauty products. This meant that Annie and Madam Walker’s businesses were two of many to pop up during this time. They were actually part of a larger movement that saw the launch of 10,000 to 40,000 Black-owned companies from 1883 until 1913.

The Start of a Feud

By now, Madam Walker had a new name, new husband, and a new business venture. While many of her friends were happy for her, Annie didn’t take the news very well. She published an essay in a local paper in Denver, accusing Madam Walker of stealing her formula.

Annie Malone

Annie Malone. Source: Pinterest

“That’s when their lifelong feud began,” Bundles said. “There were very few products on the market at the time, but if you look at medical journals, this mixture of petrolatum and sulfur had been around for a hundred years.” Bundles also explains that the formula that Annie and Madam Walker used was very similar to Cuticura Soap’s original recipe, meaning that neither woman actually invented this formula.

Starting to Grow

Over the next few years, Madam Walker worked tirelessly to get her business off of the ground. At first, she would travel to the South and demonstrate her hair treatments in Black churches. She would also sell her hair products by walking door-to-door to show other Black women how to style their hair.

Octavia Spencer playing Madam C.J. Walker in Self Made.

Octavia Spencer playing Madam C.J. Walker in Self Made. Source: Netflix

But Madam Walker wasn’t the only one in her family involved in her prospering hair care business venture. Her husband and daughter also did everything they could to make sure her business succeeded. Now 21 years old, A’Lelia was in charge of running the mail orders from out of Denver. Her husband, C.J., also accompanied Madam Walker on her trips to the South and advised her on marketing and promotion strategies.

The “Walker System”

By 1908, Madam Walker and her husband had been selling her hair care products in the South for four years. But she didn’t only sell hair care products, she promoted her “Walker System.” This hair care system consisted of scalp preparation, her sulfur-based hair products, and heated iron combs.

An ad for Madam C.J. Walkers hair care products

A hair care ad circa 1920. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

While Madam Walker didn’t necessarily invent this system, she is the one who made this system popular. By now, the Walker family decided to move again, but this time to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. While living there, Madam Walker and her husband decided to expand their business. They opened up a beauty parlor and created the Lelia College, which trained other “hair culturalists.”

A Bit of Controversy

While Madam Walker and the “Walker Method” helped prevent scalp conditions that plagued the Black community for years, it was not without controversy. Madam Walker urged her clients to use shampoo and her hair grower, but she also promoted hot combs that straightened hair. Some people accused Madam Walker of creating unnatural beauty expectations for Black women.

Octavia Spencer addressing people (who are not shown)

Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker in Self Made. Source: Netflix

However, the businesswoman disagreed with these accusations. She claims that her goal was to grow hair, not alter Black women’s appearance. “Let me correct the erroneous impression held by some that I claim to straighten hair,” Madam Walker told reporters shortly before her death. “I deplore such an impression because I have always held myself out as a hair culturist. I grow hair.”

Empowering Women

Controversy aside, Madam Walker’s program strengthened her brand and empowered Black women by giving them financial independence. “At a time when unskilled white workers earned about $11 a week, Walker’s agents were making $5 to $15 a day, pioneering a system of multilevel marketing that Walker and her associates perfected for the Black market,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in an article for Time magazine in 1998.

Women learning in a large group

Source: PBS

According to Gates and many other professors who have studied Madam Walker, she revealed the major economic potential of the Black economy that was suffocating under the pressures of Jim Crowe segregation. Her groundbreaking business and marketing strategies paved the way for other Black entrepreneurs to follow in her footsteps.

Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company

With her daughter now running the company’s day-to-day operations in Pittsburg, Madam Walker moved her company’s headquarters to Indianapolis, Indiana. This move marked the official establishment of her company, Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She built a factory, hair salon, a beauty school that trained all of her sales agents, and even added a laboratory that helped with haircare research.

A large room used as a beauty school with men and women doing hair

A Walker Beauty School. Source: Twitter

By now, Madam Walker’s company was making a reasonable profit, but she wouldn’t have achieved this success without her hardworking employees, who were mainly women. It was important for Madam Walker to empower women in the Black community, so she tried to employ as many as she could.

Ahead of Her Time

From factory workers to key management positions, Madam Walker’s company trained as many as 20,000 women by 1917. Dressed in black skirts and white shirts, Madam Walker’s sales force went door-to-door throughout the United States and the Caribbean. They offered demonstrations of the “Walker System” and sold products with her face on them.

Reception in the office of CJ Walker Company

Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company reception area. Source: Twitter

Madam Walker understood the power of brand awareness and promotion and placed multiple advertisements for her products in Black newspapers and magazines. There was not a soul in the United States at the time who didn’t know who Madam Walker was. In today’s world, it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking her business model was, but, at the time, it simply was not done.

A Positive Influence

Madam Walker’s positive influence on Black women’s lives didn’t just end there. While she trained them in sales and beauty techniques, she also taught them how to budget, build their own businesses, and achieve financial independence. Inspired by the NACW meetings she attended years before, Madam Walker began to organize her own clubs and organizations.

Beauty School graduates posing together outside of the Madam C.J. Walker’s School of Beauty

Beauty School graduates. Source: Flickr

She created the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents. These organizations held annual conferences and became the first to hold national conferences for women entrepreneurs. The first meeting, which was held in 1917 and saw 200 attendees, was a safe space for women to discuss business and commerce, free from the judgment from men.

Remembering Her Roots

During the conventions, Madam Walker shared her experience of being born into poverty, leaving abusive relationships, and building her company from the ground up. She wanted to show women everywhere that they, too, could achieve success.

Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker and others in Self Made

A scene from Self Made. Source: Netflix

Madam Walker also encouraged attendees to hone in on their sales skills by handing out prizes to those who sold the most products and brought in the most sales agents. But Madam Walker didn’t stop there. She understood the power of a strong community and giving back to those in need. The businesswoman encouraged her workers to give back to their communities and rewarded those who made large contributions to local charities.

Building a Strong Community

As Madam Walker’s fame and wealth grew, so did her philanthropy and activism. She took her role as a Black female role model seriously and began to consistently give back to her community. She raised money to create a YMCA branch in Indianapolis and gave money to scholarship funds to the Tuskegee Institute, a historically Black, private college in Alabama.

Madam C.J. Walker, Booker T. Washington, and others at the dedication of the Senate Avenue YMCA 1913

Madam C.J. Walker, Booker T. Washington, and others at the dedication of the Senate Avenue YMCA 1913. Source: Facebook

She also donated money to many other educational institutions that helped the Black community and funded a prominent anti-lynching group. In 1916, Madam left her company headquarters in Indianapolis and moved to New York to be closer to her daughter. While in New York, she became even more involved in political and economic activism.

Villa Lewaro

While in New York, Madam Walker hired Vertner Tandy to build her a mansion in Westchester County, which is located about 20 miles north of New York City. Newspapers raved about the 34-room, 20,000 square-foot mansion and dubbed it “Villa Lewaro.” By now, Madam Walker was very wealthy and was not afraid to flaunt her money.

Villa Lewaro filled with people

The Breedlove cabin in Delta, Louisiana. Source: Flickr

Living in a mainly white neighborhood, however, came with its own set of complications. Some neighbors mistook her for a maid during the construction process, while others protested her decision to move to their neighborhood because of the color of her skin. Still, Madam Walker didn’t back down. She completed her project and hoped that it would inspire others to achieve their own goals in the face of prejudice.

Gone Too Soon

After moving into her mansion, Madam Walker got straight to work. She hosted parties and events that celebrated and empowered the Black community. Sadly, she didn’t enjoy the fruits of her labor for very long. Madam Walker died from hypertension and kidney failure in May 1919, exactly one year after she moved into her mansion.

Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker in Self Made

Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker in Self Made. Source: Netflix

The businesswoman, who was 51 years old at the time of her death, was worth between half a million and a million dollars, which is around nine million dollars today. At the time of her passing, she owned several properties in New York and had just purchased land in Indianapolis, which was later turned into the Madam Walker Theater Center.

Her Legacy Lives On

At the time of her death, Madam Walker was considered the wealthiest, self-made woman in America. While her financial success is something to celebrate, her activism and philanthropy carried on her legacy for generations after her death.

A class of beauticians posing outside of the Madam C.J. Walker beauty culture school \

Beauticians outside of the Madam C.J. Walker beauty culture school. Source: Twitter

Her story has been retold countless times, with the most recent being a miniseries for Netflix, called Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker. While the series starring Octavia Spencer gives Madam Walker the respect she deserves, the show’s creators took some artistic license. For an added feeling of drama, some of the dates are falsified, characters are invented, and some relationships are intensified.

Fact or Fiction

The most notable change is the creation of a character named Addie Monroe. The show’s creators said that Addie is a compilation of many different people, not just Annie Turnbo Malone. In real life, the women were very competitive, but some of the arguments that take place in the series were exaggerated for a dramatic effect.

Carmen Ejogo as Addie Monroe doing Octavia Spencer’s hair in Self Made

Carmen Ejogo as Addie Monroe with Octavia Spencer in Self Made. Source: Netflix

Annie never conspired with Madam Walker’s son-in-law, nor did she steal any of her agents. Besides Annie, the series also depicts a conflict between Madam Walker and Booker T. Washington, which historians say never happened. And while Madam Walker lived three miles away from John D. Rockefeller towards the end of her life, there is no evidence showing that she knew him personally.

Her Story Continues

Although there are some notable changes, Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, still stands behind the series. She believes retelling Madam Walker’s story will inspire a whole new generation. “Lots of people are eager to know more and to know the facts,” A’Lelia said in an interview with Vanity Fair magazine. “And I’m eager to tell them the facts.”

Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker holding up some product to sell

Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker in Self Made. Source: Netflix

Madam Walker started off from nothing. She was born into poverty and orphaned in a time where the color divide ran deep. Through pure grit and determination, she built her company from the ground up and set a long-standing example that you can achieve whatever you set your mind to. Lucky for us, Madam Walker’s legacy lives on.

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