As the country continues to celebrate and honor the accomplishments of women this month, CBS2 looked at the amazing life of one born to enslaved parents who grew to be one of this country’s most successful entrepreneurs.
Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919) was “the first Black woman millionaire in America” and made her fortune thanks to her homemade line of hair care products for Black women. Born Sarah Breedlove to parents who had been enslaved, she was inspired to create her hair products after an experience with hair loss, which led to the creation of the “Walker system” of hair care.
A talented entrepreneur with a knack for self-promotion, Walker built a business empire, at first selling products directly to Black women, then employing “beauty culturalists” to hand-sell her wares. The self-made millionaire used her fortune to fund scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute and donated large parts of her wealth to the NAACP, the Black YMCA and other charities.
‘The first Black woman millionaire in America’
Walker became one of the best-known African Americans and was embraced by the Black press. The success of her business enabled her to live in homes that were a far cry from the one she had grown up in; her Manhattan townhouse became a salon for members of the Harlem Renaissance when her daughter inherited it in the 1920s. Walker’s country home, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington-on-Hudson, was designed by Black architect Vertner Tandy.
Walker’s reputation as an entrepreneur was matched only by her reputation for philanthropy. She established clubs for her employees, encouraging them to give back to their communities and rewarding them with bonuses when they did. At a time when jobs for Black women were fairly limited, she promoted female talent, even stipulating in her company’s charter that only a woman could serve as president. She donated generously to educational causes and Black charities, funding scholarships for women at Tuskegee Institute and donating to the NAACP, the Black YMCA, and dozens of other organizations that helped make Black history.