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Madam C. J. Walker

Updated on June 29, 2010

Madam CJ Walker - An Inspiration

While doing my usual reading stroll through the Internet the other day I came across the story of a truly inspirational American.  This person is an inspiration to African Americans as well as women in general.  More importantly, this person should be an inspiration to all Americans.  When you think about the odds against this woman, it's hard to imagine she would end up in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Madam CJ Walker is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first women to become a self-made millionaire.  She was born Sarah Breedlove.  He beginnings were quite humble.  She was born in Delta Louisiana in 1867.  The odds of a poor black woman born in the south 2 years after the civil war becoming a successful business woman had to be astronomical.

Madam CJ Walker

Madam Walker in a photograph ca. 1914 by Addison Scurlock.
Madam Walker in a photograph ca. 1914 by Addison Scurlock.

Things Go from Bad to Worse

Her mother died when she was just 5 years old.  Her father remarried shortly thereafter but he died 2 years after her mother passed away.  CJ was one of 6 children.  At the time of her parents death she moved in with her older sister Louvenia.  However the situation went from bad to worse when she discovered that her brother-in-law was abusive. 

To escape the abuse, she got married at the age of 14.  Three years later she had a baby girl, Lelia McWilliams.  Just as it seemed things were starting to turn around for CJ, her husband died when she was just 20 years old.

It was at this time that she moved to be with her other siblings.  Her three other siblings were brothers who were all barbers living in St. Louis.  She quickly integrated herself into the community and became quite involved in the church.

At the age of 26 she married once again.  Her marriage to John Davis only lasted for 7 years.  Three years after that divorce she married for her third time to CJ Walker who was a newspaper sales agent.  They were married in 1906 and eventually divorced in 1912. 

Things Turn Around

It was about the time of the beginning of her third marriage that she discovered that sulfur was a cure to a scalp disease that caused hair loss.  Up until that time, bathing was not a regular occurance which caused the scalp disease in many Americans.  At the time this hair loss was accepted because there was no good way to prevent it. 

The discovery was not easy but after experimenting with many different possible solutions, she finally discovered that Sulfur was the key to eliminating the scalp disease and thus re-establish hair growth.  She was able to start the company in 1908 by selling shampoos and ointments with the sulfur ingredient. 

CJ and her husband traveled the United States selling the hair care products door to door while her daughter ran the mail order part of the business.  In 1910 CJ and her husband built a factory in Indianapolis to do her own production of the shampoos and ointments.

Inspiration to Others

Madam CJ Walker was a inspiration to women and African Americans while she was still alive.  She contributed money and time to black causes.  She could be found lecturing to women about what it takes to become successful.  She tried to help other women gain confidence and inspire them to greatness.

She also was a force in the black community at the time.  Whenever asked she would give speeches about black issues of the day.  One of her most important projects was working with the NAACP to lobby for legislation that made lynching a federal crime.

Throughout the rest of her short life she donated not just time but money to black causes, women's issues, education programs, retirement communities and schools.

Unfortunately her life was cut short.  At the age of 51 in the year 1919, she died of complications from hypertension.  Her daughter Lelia gained ownership of the company.

Still an Inspiration

A postage stamp commemorated her and her life. Many different business and social issue organizations have championed her accomplishments. Many people have never heard of Madam CJ Walker but this is one American we should be proud to follow.

Her granddaughter wrote what seems to be the most comprehensive book on her life. The book is called On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.

If you are like me, and have not really heard of her before, check out more of her story.  It is both compelling and an inspiration.  Whenever you feel the odds are stacked against you, just imagine how Madam CJ Walker felt at an early age.

Books About Madam CJ Walker

On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker (Lisa Drew Books (Paperback))
On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker (Lisa Drew Books (Paperback))

Biography done by the grand-daughter of Madam CJ Walker. Considered to be the most insightful.


Actress Sherrie Tolliver portrays Madame C.J Walker on how she became the first self-made African American millionaire at the Warren-Trumbull Co. Public Library


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    • profile image

      ds 5 years ago

      good show

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 7 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Excellent hub. I enjoyed reading about this inspiring woman. If not for your information, I would have missed an opportunity to know about her. Thanks

    • rose56 profile image

      rose56 7 years ago

      very good full of information.You have to be a strong person to succeed. Against all odds.

    • Wayne Brown profile image

      Wayne Brown 7 years ago from Texas

      A very interesting read and proof that skin-color and background have nothing to do with success if you have the determination and a good idea with which to succeed. The irony I suppose is that her life was cut short by a disease that too often has great impact in the black race. Of course, in that era, many folks died in all races of hypertension without ever being conscious that they suffered from it. Thanks for creating a good hub! WB