Madam C. J. Walker
NAME: Madam C.J. Walker (birth name Sarah Breedlove)
DATE OF BIRTH: December 23, 1867
PLACE OF BIRTH: Delta, Louisiana
DATE OF DEATH: May 25, 1919
PLACE OF DEATH: Irvington-on-Hudson, New York
FAMILY BACKGROUND: Sarah Breedlove, who later became known as Madam C. J. Walker, was born into a former-slave family to parents Owen and Minerva Breedlove. She had one older sister, Louvenia and brothers Alexander, James, Solomon and Owen, Jr. Her parents had been slaves on Robert W. Burney's Madison Parish farm which was a battle-staging area during the Civil War for General Ulysses S. Grant and his Union troops. She became an orphan at age 7 when her parents died. To escape a yellow fever epidemic and failing cotton crops, the ten year old Sarah and her sister moved across the river to Vicksburg in 1878 to obtain work. At the age of fourteen, Sarah married Moses McWilliams to escape her sister's abusive husband. They had a daughter, Lelia (later known as A'Lelia Walker, a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance). When Lelia was only two years old, McWilliams died. Sarah's second marriage to John Davis August 11, 1894 failed and ended sometime in 1903. She married for the third time in January, 1906 to newspaper sales agent, Charles Joseph Walker; they divorced in 1912.
Madam Walker was quite the business woman. Her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker and her daughter Lelia had key roles in the growth and day-to-day operations of the business. In September, 1906 Madam Walker and her husband toured the country promoting their products and training sales agents while Lelia ran a mail-order operation from Denver. From 1908 to 1910 they operated a beauty training school, the Lelia College for Walker Hair Culturists, in Pittsburgh. In 1910 they moved the central operations to Indianapolis, then the country's largest inland manufacturing base, to utilize that city's access to eight major railway systems. Madam Walker and her husband divorced in 1912. She soon reached the height of her success, at which point Madam Walker gathered a group of key principals to run the company.
She became an inspiration to many black women. Fully recognizing the power of her wealth and success she lectured to promote her business which in turn empowered other women in business. She gave lectures on black issues at conventions sponsored by powerful black institutions. She also encouraged black Americans to support the cause of World War I and worked to have black veterans granted full respect.
After the bloody East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917, Madam Walker devoted herself to having lynching made a federal crime. In 1918 she was the keynote speaker at many National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fund raisers for the anti-lynching effort throughout the Midwest and East. She was honored later that summer by the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) for making the largest contribution to saving the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. She donated large sums of money to the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign and later in her life revised her will to support black schools, organizations, individuals, orphanages, retirement homes, as well as YWCAs and YMCAs.
Builders completed construction of Madam Walker's home, Villa Lewaro, in August of 1918 in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. Her neighbors included industrialists Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. The grand estate served not only as her home but also as a meeting place for summits of race leaders to discuss current issues.
Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro at the age of 51 on Sunday, May 25, 1919 from complications of hypertension. Upon her death she was considered to be the wealthiest African-American woman in America and known to be the first African-American woman millionaire. Some sources cite her as the first self-made American woman millionaire. Her daughter Lelia succeeded her as president of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.
PORTRAYED BY: Sherrie Tolliver
Bundles, A'Lelia Perry. On Her Own Ground: the Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker. New York: Scribner, 2001.
Bundles, A'Lelia, Perry. Madam C.J. Walker : Entrepreneur. New York: Chelsea House, 2008.
Lasky, Kathryn. Vision of Beauty: the Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker. Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 2000.
National Negro Business League, "Report of the Thirteenth Annual Convention," Chicago, 1912.
"Wealthiest Negro Woman's Suburban Mansion: Estate at Irvington, Overlooking Hudson and Containing All the Attractions That a Big Fortune Commands." New York Times Magazine. November 4, 1917.
Madam Walker - includes biographical information, data on the USPS Commemorative stamp, excerpt from On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker.
The Walker Theatre Center- the Web site for the 1927 National Historic Landmark that once housed the Walker Company.
Madam Walker Family Archives - the largest private collection of Walker photographs, business documents, clothing, furniture and other Walker artifacts.
Two American Entrepreneurs: Madam C.J. Walker and J.C. Penney National Park Service - Teaching with Historic Places.
Villa Lewaro- the Web site for Madam Walker’s Irvington-on-Hudson, NY estate.
Madam Walker research at the National Archives: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3qjlLYszEI
Madam Walker biographical information: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O4BGrMcD4o
Interview with U. S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4lbpm_LQSU
HGTV documentary about Villa Lewaro: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4knvT_-IO8
Presented by Lakewood Public Library