I have always found history fascinating. I suspect it’s because I’m intrigued by how often the unlikely or unexpected happens.  While we humans attempt to reduce life down to mathematical formulas with predicable outcomes, it continues to surprise us with unpredictable results through some of the most unlikely people. When I convey to audiences the fact that the first self-made female millionaire in US history was the daughter of black slaves, they typically end up with a look of disbelief on their faces. Given the intense racially charged cultural climate which led to the American Civil War, combined with the limited options women had at the time, the idea of a wealthy self-made black female entrepreneur would not have been on anyone’s radar. In fact, most then would have told you it could never happen in this environment and yet it did! It’s a most unlikely outcome.

Long before America was introduced to the dynamism of forceful black women such as Oprah Winfrey, they had to reckon with Sarah Breedlove who was born on December 23rd, 1867 near Delta, Louisiana. Owen and Minerva, Sarah’s parents, had been born into slavery working on the Madison Parish Plantation for owner Robert W. Burney. While all of Sarah’s older siblings were also born into slavery, she was the first in her family to be born after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1st 1863. She was born free; well at least in theory anyway. As a child, she was forced to work in the cotton fields alongside the rest of her family. Tragically, in 1872, her mother would succumb to cholera and her father would remarry not long afterward. Things for her only got worse when Owen passed away a few years later leaving her parentless by the age of seven.


Sarah’s older sister Louvenia had married and relocated to Vicksburg, Mississippi after a yellow fever epidemic hit northeast Louisiana hard. It was decided that young Sarah would go live with her and husband Jesse Powell. As a child of slaves, an education was out of the question so she would go to work in Vicksburg as a domestic servant. Being a ten-year-old girl she had limited options and found herself in an untenable situation when Jesse in drunken rages began abusing her. With no one to turn to and nowhere to go, she endured his mistreatment of her for another four years. In a desperate move to extradite herself from having to endure anymore pain, she agreed to marry Moses (Jeff) McWilliams at the age of fourteen. They had a daughter together (Lelia) who was born three years later in 1885.

Life would not ease up on Sarah and in 1887 she would find herself widowed at the age of twenty. While the details are vague, it seems Jeff was caught up in either a lynching or race riot and was killed. Now a single parent with a two-year-old, she reached out to her family for help. Three of her older brothers had previously relocated to St Louis so she and Lelia moved there to find work and get away from the ugliness of what had happened in Mississippi. In St Louis she would find work washing clothes for a dollar a day. She was driven by a desire to see her daughter get a formal education and an opportunity for a better life than the one she grew up with.


For generations, black communities have gathered together in church and around music. In 1880’s St Louis, a new style of music was emerging called “Ragtime”. The syncopated music with its “ragged” rhythm quickly caught on in the black culture there. Later Scott Joplin, who hailed from Sedalia, Missouri would become known as the “King of Ragtime” while performing this music around the country in various venues. Years later, Joplin’s compositions would find a rebirth of interest when a few of his songs were featured in the soundtrack for the 1973 Academy Award winning movie “The Sting”.  This was the world Sarah and her daughter had moved into. At the same time, she joined St Paul African Episcopal Church and began singing in the choir. There, from the friendships she developed, she became more aware of the plight of women of African descent. She yearned for an education and financial independence and wanted that for them as well. From the money she made washing clothes, she would pay for her own daughter to attend Knoxville College in Tennessee.


During the endless hours of clothes washing and house cleaning, she began to notice how much of her hair was falling out. She was also struggling with various scalp ailments including severe dandruff. In talking to other women at church she discovered they too were dealing with the same skin disorder issues. What they all had in common, was the soaps and cleaning products they were using were heavily saturated with lye. In addition to the caustic effects of lye, with poverty came bad diets and lack of personal hygiene, all of which contributed to having not just a bad hair day but a bad hair life. Sarah found herself asking “How can I change this?”. Her first stop was her older brothers who had all become barbers by this point. They gave her insight into what they were doing in an attempt to alleviate the problem. Around the time of the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, Sarah met Annie Minerva Turnbo. Annie was originally from the other side of the Mississippi River in Brooklyn, Illinois. Only a couple years earlier, Annie had begun experimenting and developing hair care products to address the specific needs of black women. Sarah was so excited to find another woman with a similar passion and began selling Annie’s products for her.

While working for Annie’s business, the Poro Company, Sarah began experimenting with her own products. In July of 1905, the thirty-seven-year-old Sarah and her daughter relocated to Denver, Colorado where she opened a new market all the while developing her own product line. A year later she would marry Charles Walker who became her business partner and marketing consultant. Understanding how important image was in advertising, she adopted “Madam” from the female pioneers of the French beauty industry and using her married name rebranded herself “Madam C.J. Walker” independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams. Her “Wonderful Hair Grower” product was a huge hit and she redesigned the then popular “hot comb” to better accommodate the coarser and heavier hair of African-Americans. The growth ointment, a hair oil, a psoriasis scalp treatment and the newly redesigned comb became known as the “Walker System”.


Madam Walker would later recall a pivotal moment in her business career

“God answered my prayer, for one night I had a dream, and in that dream a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind I would begin to sell it.”

If you have been keeping up with my blogs, you would have noted how often key personal moments in people’s lives are precipitated by a dream or some other spiritual phenomena. What would have normally taken years of trial and error were suddenly expedited by a divine intervention. Something I find curious… is a common religious mindset that these spiritual encounters with God should only relate to the advancement of the institutional religious church world.  The testimony of history though is they don’t! God seems to be as interested in business advancement, scientific discovery and the beauty of the creative arts as He is with the church. Some of you are already wondering what is “the church” anyway? Maybe we need a more expansive model. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have met with someone who has found success in their particular field, and they tell me of a spiritual encounter they had which was pivotal to their success.

While God may have provided Madam CJ Walker with a solution, it was her hard work and diligence which made it pay off. She started her company as a door-to-door saleswoman teaching people herself along the way how to use her products. As the business grew she found herself exhausted and at that point decided to develop a sales team. In the realization her business was outgrowing its one-woman capacity, she also discovered a huge opportunity for other women of color. “I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavor to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race.” She would make sure they were well versed in her story and knew how to effectively demonstrate her products.  She understood it was the story and the experience which would sell the merchandise. It’s the same philosophy Steve Jobs would adopt decades later while launching Apple. It’s how you build brand loyalty.


In 1906, Madam Walker put her daughter in charge of the mail order business in Denver and she and CJ moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to open a new beauty parlor and established Lelia College to train her “hair culturists”. Finding the Pittsburgh market teeming with opportunity, Lelia (now calling herself A’lelia) relocated the mail order business there while her mother and CJ moved on to establish a new base of operations in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1910. It was there the company really took off. They established the headquarters for the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company; built a factory, hair salon and beauty school to train her sales team. As the company grew she added a management team primarily composed of women. By 1917 they had trained over 20,000 sales women and expanded their market to places like Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama and Costa Rica. Madame Walker traveled extensively preaching her gospel of financial independence to black women around the world.

Today we are familiar with companies like Avon and Mary Kay Cosmetics, but it was Madam C.J. Walker whose model these companies would later incorporate. She understood marketing and staying on message. She advertised in African American newspapers and magazines and her products came with her image on them. Her sales teams were dressed in white shirts, black skirts and carried a black bag full of products to demonstrate. People instantly recognized who they were and made the association with the products they were selling. While Madam Walker was primarily a business woman, it was through her business she was able to fulfill what she felt was her life mission which was the empowering of black women. She didn’t simply show them how to sell products, she taught them how to budget and build their own businesses. Her agents were her business partners and she taught them how to become financially independent.


In time she would go on to establish “Walker Clubs” on a state or local level. The clubs were set up not only as means of training but to encourage her agents to become more involved in improving their communities. With her fame and wealth, she had a platform to become more active in social issues and she expected her business partners to do the same. Those who stood out in community endeavors would find themselves rewarded with cash supplements from her to carry on their work. In 1917 she would convene the first National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents meeting in Philadelphia. There she handed out prizes for top sales performers, those who had recruited the newest agents while at the same time honoring those who made the biggest impact in their communities. It was one of the first national gatherings of women entrepreneurs to discuss business and commerce in US history.

When one puts her life into the cultural context of the times, it’s a rather extraordinary story. Madame Walker was a pioneer. Women for generations would navigate a little easier on the trail she blazed. She would say of herself “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations…. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

I am reminded of a line from Alexander McCall Smith’s book “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency”. The main character, Precious Ramotswe, was the female proprietor of the agency which was located in Botswana.  She would proclaim after overcoming a great deal of adversity, “We African women are made of strong stuff!” I couldn’t agree more.