First Female Millionaire



    While I was waiting for the light to turn green, my best friend and I were discussing whether or not we should go to the gym. We went on about the fact that we had just gotten our hair done the day before and did not want to mess it up and lose the sheen, body, curl and overall style of our hair that took hours to obtain in the first place. Those factors combined with my recently having to explain to a friend why she could in a matter of minutes wash her hair after working out while I, because of the texture of mine, could not, put me into research mode about this issue of hair texture and products. The results of my hours of digging and reading led me to information about a woman who is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first female millionaire of any race. Her name is Sarah Breedlove, more affectionately known as Madam C. J. Walker.



Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana, the daughter of former slaves. Both her parents died when she was only 6. At the age of 14 she married C. J. Walker and three years later, the only child she would have, A'Lelia, was born. At the age of 38 Walker decided she wanted to develop a product that would improve the quality and texture of "black hair." Making only $1.50 per week as a washerwoman, Sarah, with $1.25 to her name, began developing cosmetics and hair-care products specifically for African-American women. With the help of her husband Sarah began selling her products from door-to-door, via newsletters and through mail order, setting the standard for a marketing strategy that still exists today.

    Just seven years after establishing her product line, Breedlove became a millionaire. In keeping with the trend of many women proprietors of that era, she attached the title Madam to her husband’s name and was thereafter known as Madam C. J. Walker. In 1908 the Walkers moved to Pittsburgh where she established a cosmetology school called Lelia College, which is no longer in operation. After divorcing her husband in 1916, she moved to New York and with her newfound and hard-earned wealth, commissioned the services of another African-American first, Vertner Woodson Tandy, New York State's first licensed Black architect. To Walker’s specifications, Tandy built a palatial 32-room mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson. Construction on the mansion began in 1916 and was completed in 1918. The mansion contained a marble staircase, a three-story pipe organ and sunken gardens. Due to the various themes and exquisite design throughout, the mansion was called "Villa Lewaro." Reportedly Walker selected the site on Broadway in Irvington-on-Hudson because, if you were going to Albany, you had to pass the house; she envisioned the house as a symbol to her people. Walker's mansion was featured earlier this year on HGTV's "Designing for Women: The Madam C. J. Walker Show House." 

"...I want to say to every Negro woman present, don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come...Get up and make them!"
~Madam Walker~

    Madam Walker was a strong advocate of Black women's economic independence, which she fostered by creating business opportunities for women at a time when the only other options were domestic work and sharecropping. Her business philosophy stressed economic independence for women. Her entrepreneurial strategies led to what has become a multibillion-dollar Black cosmetics industry and she used her wealth and status to work towards political and economic rights for African Americans and women. Walker felt so strongly about women’s rights that she placed a stipulation in her will that the company must always be headed by women. (I have been unable to verify if this is the case) Madam Walker's hair products and cosmetics are reportedly now being manufactured again by Walker Enterprises of Indianapolis, Indiana.


    In 1917 Madam Walker became the largest donor at that time to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with a gift of $5,000. Madam C. J. Walker, Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Social Activist, died in May 1919, at age 51, of kidney failure caused by complications of high blood pressure. Sadly she died only one year after Villa Lewaro was completed. In August 1933, at age 46, her daughter A'Lelia succumbed to a stroke, also induced by high blood pressure. A stamp in Madam Walker’s honor was issued by the US Postal Service in 1998, the third in the Black Heritage series.


"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, 1912, National Negro Business League Convention~


© dg/; 6/18/2000


For more information on Madam C. J. Walker, visit

Other Sources:
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
The United Negro College Fund
Louisiana Leaders
Home & Garden Television (HGTV)