A black woman in the 19th century had limited career choices.
They were maids, sharecroppers, or performed other unskilled labor. However, Sarah Breedlove, a laundress later known as Madam C.J. Walker, amassed a personal fortune as a beauty industry entrepreneur. She gave black women across the world a new career path.
Walker was born in 1867 on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, two years after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution freed slaves.
She was orphaned at age 7, married at age 14, a mother at age 17 and a widow by age 20.
In her 30s, Walker began losing her hair. She experimented with her own potions and used products by a black female entrepreneur named Annie Malone.
Walker went to work as a sales agent for Malone’s Poro Products in Denver. She remarried, took on her husband’s name (Charles Joseph Walker) and used experience gained from her work at Poro to create and sell her own products, specifically a formula of petrolatum, sulfur and perfume that she bottled and sold door-to-door across the South and the Southeast.
Walker soon built a network of sales agents, plus opened a manufacturing plant, a salon and beauty schools to support her business.
By the time of her death in 1919, Walker was referred to as the first self-made female millionaire (though her estate was reportedly valued at less), a philanthropist, a social activist and a business owner who economically empowered thousands of African-American women.
Walker’s manufacturing company ceased operations in 1981, but in 2016, Sundial Brands introduced her products to a new generation with the launch of the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture line, a collection of 25 products priced from $24 to $32, sold at Sephora locations nationwide.
Celebrate Black History Month
Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and watch videos on African-American pioneers featured each day.