Madam C.J. Walker’s fortune had its roots in hair products
Madam C.J. Walker, a self-made millionaire who was born Sarah Breedlove to former slaves. – Star file photo
February is Black History Month, a nationwide observance that provides us a chance to reflect on the roles blacks have played in the shaping of the country’s history. The Indianapolis Star this month is highlighting some of the black Hoosiers who contributed to that history.
The daughter of former slaves, Madam C.J. Walker built a business empire that made her one of the first American women of any color to become a self-made millionaire.
She was born Sarah Breedlove on Dec. 23, 1867, on a Louisiana cotton plantation, and her parents died when she was 7.
She married Moses McWilliams at age 14; he died when she was 20, leaving her with a 2-year-old daughter. She then went to work as a washerwoman and a cook, and developed alopecia, a skin condition that causes hair loss, which was common among black women at that time because of poor diet, damaging hair treatments and stress.
She developed her own line of hair products and was selling them door to door when she married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper sales agent. They later divorced, but she continued to use his name.
In 1905, Walker perfected a formula for straightening the hair of black women. Under the professional name Madam Walker, she opened a mail-order business in Denver and a beauty parlor and training school in Pittsburgh.
In 1910, she moved the Walker Manufacturing Co. to Indianapolis, which at the time was the country’s largest inland manufacturing center, with access to eight major railway systems.
By the time Walker moved her company to New York City in 1916, it employed 20,000 agents in the United States, Central America and the Caribbean.
The Walker Building at 617 Indiana Ave. was completed in 1927 and continues to house a theater.
Walker’s later years were devoted to charity, funding scholarships and supporting political causes, including efforts to make lynching a federal crime.
She died in 1919 at age 51.