“I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
—Sarah Breedlove Walker
Born this day in 1867: Sarah Breedlove Walker, a.k.a. Madame C. J. Walker (1867–1919), business woman, philanthropist, first African American woman millionaire
Sarah Breedlove was born the daughter of sharecroppers in Louisiana and was orphaned by age six. She was married at age 14, widowed by age 20. For 18 years she raised her daughter, A’Lelia, by herself. Breedlove worked as a washerwoman and studied at night. After years of experimenting, she developed a hairstyling product for African American women and began selling it locally.
In 1906 she moved to Colorado and married newspaperman Charles J. Walker. In Colorado she set up a successful mail order business to sell the “Walker Method.”
Her business grew and she hired women as agents to sell her product door-to-door. She rebranded herself as Madame C.J. Walker and moved her company headquarters to Indianappolis in 1910. At the height of its success the Madame C.J. Walker Company employed 3,ooo agents in the U.S. and throughout the Caribbean. Walker carefully trained her agents to use and sell her products (a range of products and appliances) and aggressively promoted her products through advertising and personal tours.
Between her successful business and shrewd real estate investments, Walker amassed a fortune. She became a very generous philanthropist. Among her causes were education, anti-lynching campaigns, homes for the aged, and the NAACP. She even encouraged her agents to engage in philanthropy, giving out cash prizes to the Walker agent social clubs that performed the most community work.
Walker established a trust fund to support her favorite causes and left the bulk of her state to A’Leila, including her business (in which A’Leila had played an active part). A’Leila (A’Leila Walker Kennedy) went on to be an important founder of the Harlem Renaissance.
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