Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867 in rural Louisiana. Her parents were former slaves and worked as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation. At the age of 5 she began washing laundry for pay, and she continued supporting herself in that manner well into her thirties. She was married by her fourteenth birthday and became a mother by her seventeenth.
Sarah was also the first self-made female millionaire in the United States. She was better known as Madam CJ Walker.
Like many African American women of her era, Walker suffered from hair loss caused by poor hair and scalp health. She began experimenting with home remedies, developing her own recipes attuned to the specific needs of African American women. Eventually, Walker sold her special recipes door-to-door in St. Louis, launching her career as a hair care entrepreneur.
Because St. Louis already had several cosmetic companies, Walker moved to Denver in 1906 to officially establish her own company. Business boomed, and in addition to selling products door-to-door, she established a mail-order service, a branch of the business run by her daughter Lelia.
During this time, Walker traveled across the country promoting her products, recruiting sales representatives, and training hair dressers. A former washerwomen herself, Walker provided new and exciting employment opportunities for African American women. One of her agents wrote,
“You opened up a trade for hundreds of colored women to make an honest and profitable living where they make as much in one week as a month’s salary would bring them from any other position that colored women can secure.”
By 1908, the thriving business was moved to Pittsburgh, but it wouldn’t stay there for long. Walker visited Indianapolis in 1910 and was impressed by the city’s railway access and manufacturing infrastructure, as well as its established African American community. Later that year she moved her entire operation to Indianapolis, building a factory, salon, and cosmetology school. In the years to follow she was extremely generous to black charities in the Indianapolis community and beyond.
By 1919, the year of her death, she employed more than 3,000 people in her factory and had more than 20,000 agents nationwide. The business was carried on by her daughter and is still in operation today.
In honor of Black History Month, consider visiting the Madam Walker Theatre, her continuing legacy in Indianapolis. Its fascinating history and exciting community events make the Theatre an important cultural landmark of greater Indianapolis.