May 28, 2015
From the Inkwell of: Bartholomew J. Worthington III
Born - December 23, 1867
Died - May 25, 1919
The woman who would go on to become the first Black female millionaire was born on December 23, 1867 as Sarah Breedlove. Sarah was the fifth child to recently freed slaves, Owen and Minerva. She was the first of their children to be born free. At the tender age of 7, Sarah would lose both of her parents. The newly orphaned Sarah would be sent to live with her sister and brother-in-law.
The family would move to Videsburg, Mississippi in 1877, where Sarah picked cotton and did domestic house work. When she was 14, Sarah married Moses McWilliams as a way to escape from her cruel working conditions and her brother-in-law's abuse. Sarah and Moses would have one daughter, Lelia (A'lelia) before Moses would be murdered by a lynch mob.
Sarah would subsequently move to St. Louis, Missouri, following her brothers who had settled there as barbers. She worked as a washer woman earning barely enough to support her household and to send her daughter to public school. Sarah would marry for a second time, but that union would be short lived due to her new husband, John Davis', infidelity.
At age 35, Sarah found herself at a crossroads:
"I was at my tubs one morning with a heavy wash before me. As I bent over the washboards and looked at my arms buried in soap suds, I said to myself, "What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?'"
Life's stresses contributed to Sarah developing a condition that caused her to lose her hair. In 1904, Sarah would discover "The Great Wonderful Hair Grower" of Annie Turnbo. Turnbo was originally from Illinois with a background in chemistry and had relocated her hair straightening business to St. Louis. Sarah would go from being a client, to selling the products as a local agent.
In 1905, fate would deal Sarah another blow, when one of her brothers passed away. Sarah would relocate to Denver, Colorado, where her sister-in-law's family resided. Arriving with a mere $2.00 to her name, Sarah Breedlove would take the entrepreneurship leap. In 1906, Sarah would marry again, to Charles Joseph Walker, who had been a successful salesman for the St. Louis Clarion.
Around this time, Sarah claimed she was inspired by a dream in which a "big Black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair." Charles would help Sarah with the branding and marketing of her company and Sarah began to go by the more marketable name: Madame CJ Walker.
In a few short years, Walker would build her fledgling company into a Black hair products powerhouse. Aside from being a shrewd business woman, Walker was also a brilliant marketer. She leveraged the reach of emerging independent Black newspapers, and sold her customers a lifestyle product. Madame CJ Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower was sold door-to-door, at churches and club gatherings, and through a mail order catalog. Walker Manufacturing Company would experience explosive growth over a relatively short period.
Walker's vision to incorporate her company and invest her own money paid dividends. She utilized the customer sales agent system she had picked up years earlier from her time with Annie Turnbo, and it turned her customers into a raving fanatical salesforce. In addition to building a world class factory in Indianapolis, Walker also opened a school to train her sales force, known as "Walker Agents."
Walker would also set up training programs at stand alone locations, as well as through established Black institutions. When her daughter, A'Lelia, graduated from college, Walker appointed her to manage the company's operations. Walker herself would serve as her company's greatest evangelist, traveling across the country and throughout Central and South America marketing and growing her operations.
In 1913, Walker and Charles would divorce. Charles would, however, remain on with the company, and Walker would retain her name, which had become synonymous with her brand. A'Lelia purchased a townhouse in Harlem, New York in 1916, and this would immerse Walker in Harlem's social and political culture.
Walker would found organization that provided educational opportunities she donated to homes for the elderly, the NAACP and many organizations that were focused on the improvement of her people.
Madame CJ Walker owld die due to hypertension on May 25, 1919, at her Hudson NY estate. At the time of her death, Walker was the sole owner of a company that was valued at over $1 million dollars. Her personal fortune was estimated to be between $600,000 and 700.000. While Walker would leave a third of her estate to her daughter A'Lelia, the bulk of Walker's fortune was donated to various charities.
"I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself. I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.”
Madame CJ Walker