Call Her Madam, the First Self-Made American Woman Millionaire

Flora M Brown, Ph.D.
5 min readFeb 3, 2020

Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove in poverty-stricken Louisiana in 1867, went from picking cotton to become the first self-made American woman millionaire. But it was not a straight line.

Madam C.J. Walker

How she began

“There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she once observed. “And if there is, I have not found it — for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”

She married at age 14, gave birth to her only daughter in 1885, and two years later became a widow. Upon her husband’s death, she moved to St. Louis where her four brothers were barbers. She saved enough money working as a laundrywoman to educate her daughter.

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations….I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

Madam Walker
July 1912

How she progressed

During the 1890’s Sarah began to lose her hair due to a damaging scalp ailment. She was so embarrassed by her appearance that she began to experiment with scalp conditioners and healing formulas made by another black entrepreneur, Annie Malone. She soon became a sales agent for Annie and moved to Denver. There she met and married her second husband, Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper sales agent and started her own company.

Founded on her testimony of success with regrowing her own hair and giving it that silky sheen that women craved, she put in motion a remarkable marketing campaign.

Cover of book, On Her Own Ground, biography of Madam CJ Walker
Biography written by Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and available on Amazon.

How she soared

On the suggestion of her husband, Sarah changed her name to the more impressive name, Madame CJ Walker, and founded her own business selling Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula. They capitalized on the advertising power of black newspapers and conducted an exhaustive…

Flora M Brown, Ph.D.

Author, course creator, and life story coach guiding memory keepers to write about the activities, choices, and beliefs that shaped their lives.