Opportunities for Black people — and especially for Black women — in the years following the abolition of slavery were few and far between. But Madam CJ Walker, who was born to former slaves in 1867 as Sarah Breedlove, found a way to make herself not only a successful beauty industry entrepreneur, but also the first American woman (and the first Black person) to become a millionaire.
Walker’s rags to riches story is so great and unique that it’s been the focus of a study by the Harvard Business School, not to mention a slew of books. She was born in the Louisiana Delta just two years after the end of the Civil War and became an orphan at age 7. She and her older sister picked cotton in Mississippi for years to make ends meet, until Walker married at age 14.
Her husband died two years after her only daughter, Lelia, was born, and Walker moved with Lelia to St. Louis, where her brothers had set up shop as successful barbers. She worked as a laundress and a cook, and managed to send her daughter to the city’s public schools.
Walker succumbed to a scalp condition in the 1890s that caused her to lose most of her hair, and her official biography says she experimented with a variety of treatments until she found a pomade made by another Black entrepreneur, Annie Malone. Malone’s hair products worked so well for Walker that in 1905 she moved to Denver to sell Malone’s products, and shortly after moved back to St. Louis and married Charles James Walker, a journalist. She changed her name to CJ Walker and set out to create her own hair conditioner, which she marketed and sold under the name Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.