She was born Sarah Breedlove two days before Christmas in the year of 1867. Breedlove was born in Delta, Louisiana, a sleepy little village in Madison Parish. In addition to Sarah, a sister and two brothers rounded out the family. Her parents, Owen Jr. and Minerva had been slaves, but they were free after the Civil War ended. Breedlove grew up with her family until, at age seven, both her parents died from Yellow Fever. When Sarah was ten years old, she and her sister Louvenia moved to Vicksburg in an effort to escape the fever epidemic and find work. They found work as maids, but Sarah Breedlove’s life would change dramatically after that. Even her name would change. To find out how she ended up becoming the first African-American millionaire, read about the interesting life and times of Madame C.J. Walker.
In the eighteen hundreds, it wasn’t unusual for young girls to marry young. In fact, it was the norm. Sarah Breedlove had been living with her sister and brother-in-law, but the arrangement wasn’t working out. Louvenia’s husband was a cruel man, and Sarah wanted desperately to escape from his abuse. When she was fourteen years old, she found her chance and Sarah married a man named Moses McWilliams. The union produced a daughter, Lelia. When Lelia was two, McWilliams was murdered, leaving Sarah a twenty-year-old widow and a single parent. Sarah McWilliams remarried in August of 1894 when she was twenty-six. This marriage, to a man named John Davis, was a rocky one. It ended less than ten years later.
Sarah and her daughter Lelia then relocated to St. Louis, Missouri to start life over again. She worked in the daytime as a laundress, and attended school at night.
In 1905, Sarah’s life changed dramatically once again, but this time for the good. She invented a hair straightening process for African-Americans. It involved using brushes, combs and heat, and her invention quickly became a successful business. Sarah and her daughter moved to Denver, Colorado where she met Charles Joseph Walker. After the two married in January of 1906, Sarah began to market her invention under the name of Madame C.J. Walker. Unfortunately, the marriage was to end just four years later.
Before that time, though, Madame C.J. Walker opened a business office in Denver. She and her husband traveled extensively to promote her hair care products in 1906 while daughter Lelia handled the mail-order end of the business at home.
Madame Walker opened a training school for beauticians in 1908, and she oversaw the operation in Pittsburgh for the next two years. It was named the “Lelia College for Walker Hair Culturists”. The college taught women how to become “Walker Agents” and sell Walker’s hair care products door-to-door across the United States. By 1910, Madame Walker had more than a thousand women working for her selling her products. Even though she was successful, Walker moved her company’s headquarters to Indianapolis, Indiana. It was a sound business move. Because, in Indianapolis, her hair product business boomed.
In 1914, at the age of 47, Madame C.J. Walker became the first African-American millionaire. She moved to New York two years later, and opened another office there.
Madame C. J. Walker died on May 25, 1919, at the age of fifty-one, from hypertension. She left behind a thirty-four room mansion that had been built on the Irvington-on-Hudson. Not only was she the first African-American to become a millionaire, but Madame Walker was also the richest African-American woman as well.