“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.”
This is the rallying cry of Sarah Breedlove, known as Madame C.J. Walker. She is hailed as the first self-made female millionaire in America. Although her estate did not actually reflect this amount when she died (1867-1919), Sarah achieved incredible success as an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and social and political activist.
What’s so revolutionary and inspiring about Sarah’s success story are the many challenges she overcame. Orphaned at the age of 7 when her mother died of cholera and her father passed away the following year, Sarah became a domestic worker at 10. Hoping to change her circumstances, she married Moses Williams at the age of 14.
Through a series of two additional marriages, none lasting beyond six years, Sarah became Mrs. C.J. Walker when she married her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker in 1906. Each of these marriages provided Sarah with an opportunity to learn from her husbands, who worked in various industries.
This marriage to Charles, a newspaper advertising man, would be instrumental in helping her to finally market the products she had started to develop after giving birth to her daughter, A’Lelia Walker. At a young age, Sarah suffered severe dandruff and baldness, from her poor diet and harsh hair products she used which contained lye. So Sarah began to explore hair care products and started making some of her own. She even took a job working for Annie Malone’s Haircare products but soon developed a better, more profitable way to make a living on her own.
Over the coming decades, Sarah transformed herself in a hairdressing and beauty product expert, taking the name Madame Walker to reflect the growing allure of Parisian products. She build a factory and hired her daughter to run the operations. Women worked in the plant and created a management team of predominantly women to help her build the business. By 1919, Sarah employed thousands of women.
Sarah never forgot her humble beginnings and used her power and growing wealth to advocate for political and social reforms in her community.
Most recently, Sarah’s legacy as an American entrepreneur and philanthropist was memorialized by the playwright, Regina Taylor, at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in a play called,The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove.
This may also become a TV series based on her life, comes to fruition.
Walker’s great-great, granddaughter has also written a TV series Madam C.J. Walker that will hopefully star Octavia Spencer.