CJ Walker

Feb. 4, 2005, midnight | By Feza Kikaya | 15 years, 8 months ago

Photo: CJ Walker, first American self-made female millionare.

Madame CJ Walker became one of the first American women millionaires when she developed hair care products for black females. She developed a treatment conditioner for straightening hair in 1905, set up a factory to produce her cosmetics in 1910 and by 1919, was one of the most successful business executives in the early twentieth century.

Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on Dec. 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. Her parents, who were ex-slaves, became sharecroppers on a cotton plantation, but by the time Walker was seven, both parents had died. She later moved to Vicksburg to live with her sister and work as a domestic. However, she had little opportunity to receive an education and married Moses McWilliams at the age of 14 to escape poverty. At the age of 18, she gave birth to her first child, Lelia, and two years later, Walker became a widow. She moved with her daughter to St. Louis in 1887 and provided for her family of two by working as a laundress for 18 years. Walker took pride in Lelia's educational accomplishments and supported the young girl from grade school through her later years at Knoxville College.

Walker began her career in her 30s when her friends and family noted how much the condition of her hair had improved. When she confessed to formulating a mixture to help grow back her damaged hair and realized the effectiveness of her product, she sold the treatment to people in her community. With the help of her second husband, Charles Joseph Walker (from whom she derived her initials), the woman marketed her product. When Walker desired to expand her small business, however, her husband felt she was being too ambitious, and the couple separated.

Despite this setback, her business continued to expand. Walker instructed African Americans in using her products and employed "Walker Agents" to market door-to-door. Amidst her success, Walker also faced criticism from some who believed that black women should wear their hair naturally. Even so, she continued to be successful and from 1908 to 1910, ran a beauty school for "hair culturists." Walker moved to Indianapolis in 1910 and established the Walker College of Hair Culture and Walker Manufacturing Company. She later traveled to Latin America and to the Caribbean to promote her products, and at her daughter's urging, Walker also invested in several properties in New York City.

In May of 1919, Walker died of hypertension at the age of 51.

Information has been compiled from The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences and from Biography.com.

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