Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana, Walker was the daughter of formerly enslaved parents. Orphaned at just 7 years old, she married at age 14 but found herself widowed and a single mother by the time she was 20.
Struggling to survive, Sarah and her daughter moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where she worked as a laundress. She married a second time in 1894, but the marriage ended in divorce a few years later.
Sarah got a job selling Annie Turnbo Malone’s hair products and moved to Denver, Colorado, in 1905. She married Charles J. Walker, her third husband, in 1906. He worked in advertising and later helped promote her business.
Madam C.J. Walker Company
Sarah had developed a scalp condition in the 1890s that led to hair loss. She claimed to have a dream one night that led to her making a new hair product that cleared up her scalp problems. Sarah marketed the formula and created her own hair product company.
The Madam C.J. Walker Company developed a method of hair care known as the Walker System and sold products directly to Black customers. Sarah also hired a team of saleswomen, known as Walker Agents, who worked door-to-door in their own Black communities across the country. The company opened a beauty school in Pittsburgh followed by additional schools in other locations, such as Indianapolis.
Achievements & Death
As the company grew, so did Sarah’s net worth, and she became the country’s first Black woman self-made millionaire. She gave generously to many organizations, including the NAACP and the Black YMCA, and funded scholarships at the Tuskegee Institute. She also championed female employees and encouraged her employees to donate to local charities.
Learn more about Madam C.J. Walker through historical newspapers from our archives. Explore newspaper articles, headlines, images, and other primary sources below.