The Hair Care Pioneer: Madam C.J. Walker is Born

“I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it!” said Madam C.J. Walker. “Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”

Born into a slave family, Madam C.J. Walker rose from her humble beginnings to establish herself as the first self-made woman millionaire in America. After experiencing a personal setback, Walker turned her fate around and used that setback to create a fortune. At a time when most African Americans were struggling to find work, Walker pioneered her way to the top of the hair care and cosmetics industries.

Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. Her parents, Owen and Minerva Breedlove, were both freed slaves although they continued to work on the cotton plantation. Walker lived with her parents, sister, and four brothers in a one-room log cabin on the plantation.

When Walker was just seven years old her parents died. There was a yellow fever epidemic at the time. To avoid the same fate, Walker and her sister moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1878, where they began working as maids. After suffering abuse at the hands of her sister’s husband, Walker chose to marry. She was only 14 years old, but she decided that marriage was her best way out.

Walker and her husband, Moses McWilliams, soon had their first child Lelia. No less than two years later, McWilliams died. Widowed at the age of 19, Walker refused to move back in with her sister and instead opted to move to St. Louis, Missouri. There, she was told, it would not be hard to find a job as a laundress.

Walker would marry another two times after McWilliams died. Both marriages, however, ended in divorce. As a result, Walker had to continue supporting herself and her daughter. Over the next eighteen years that is exactly what she did, working as a washerwoman, particularly in order to send her daughter to Knoxville College. Her income was just $1.50 a week, but she was able to save up the money.

In 1904, crisis would again strike Walker’s life. She had been working so hard and eating so poorly that she began losing her hair. She tried product after product to try and help save her hair, but nothing worked. Later that year, Walker attended a seminar that would change the course of her life and make her do something about her problem.

That seminar was put on by the National Association of Coloured Women as part of the World’s Fair in St. Louis. It was there that Walker heard a speech by Margaret Murray Washington, wife of Booker T. Washington. Walker was impressed with Washington’s confidence and well-groomed nature.

After leaving that seminar, Walker made a resolution that she was going to do something more important with her life than just washing other people’s clothes. She went home that day and asked God for help. She prayed for inspiration and an answer for her hair troubles. One night, Walker’s prayer was answered.

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