By Mary Giorgio

“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.”Madam C.J. Walker, July 1912

Widely known for manufacturing a successful line of African American haircare products, Madam C.J. Walker rose from a life of poverty to unprecedented wealth.

Within a decade, Walker turned her business into an empire, becoming the second female millionaire in the United States (after her mentor, Annie Malone). When she moved her company headquarters to Indianapolis in 1910, the impact on the African-American community was profound.

Sarah Breedlove (who later changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker) was born December 23, 1867. She was the first of her siblings to be born free. Breedlove grew up in Delta, Louisiana. Her parents were sharecroppers. Breedlove was orphaned around age 7 and became a domestic servant in Mississippi.

At age 14, Breedlove married her first husband to escape an abusive brother-in-law. In 1885, their daughter, A’Lelia was born. Two years later, Breedlove’s husband, leaving her a widow at 20 years old. Breedlove and her daughter moved to St. Louis to start over.

In St. Louis, Breedlove worked as a laundress and a cook. It was hard work for little pay, and she struggled to support her daughter. In the 1890s, Sarah began losing her hair. She experimented with homemade remedies, and in 1904 began to use a product made by African American entrepreneur Annie Malone. Her association with Malone would change Sarah’s life forever.


Sarah took a job as a sales agent for Malone, gaining valuable experience that she would later use to start her own company. After marrying Charles Walker, Sarah changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker.

Within a year, she started her own business selling a hair tonic designed to improve the physical properties of African-American hair. “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” conditioned and healed the scalp. Walker started her company with just $1.25.

Walker was a natural businesswoman and traveled to predominately African-American communities to sell her products. She had a natural rapport with her customer and was very successful at gaining a loyal customer base.

In 1910, Walker moved her company headquarters to Indianapolis. There, she built a modern factory for production. Her factory employed hundreds of African-Americans.

Madame C.J. Walker also started a hair and manicure salon and established a training school for her sales agents. She eventually trained about 40,000 agents from the US, Central America, and the Caribbean.

With the success of her hair tonic, Walker developed an entire system of African American beauty care. Known as the “Walker System,” the routine began with her scalp preparation followed by application of lotions and an iron comb.

Walker believed in giving back to the community, and in 1911 she contributed $1,000 to build an African American YMCA in Indianapolis. Walker also funded several scholarships for African-American women at Tuskegee Institute.


In 1916, Walker moved to New York. She joined the NAACP and began to donate heavily to the organization. Walker also became an influential supporter of the anti-lynching movement. When she died, Walker left her large estate at Irvington-on-Hudson, New York to the NAACP. Her will stipulated that an astonishing 2/3 of future company net profits must be used for charitable endeavors.

Madam CJ Walker died on May 25, 1919, leaving the company’s operations in the hands of her daughter. Under A’Leila Walker’s leadership, the company continued to thrive.

Madam Walker’s legacy of self-reliance and financial independence continues to inspire generations of would-be entrepreneurs. She was easily the wealthiest African American woman of her time, with a total worth eventually reaching $1 million (which would have the purchasing power of $12-14 million today).

Walker’s influence on Indianapolis remains strong. The former company headquarters, the Walker Building on Indiana Avenue, now serves as a cultural heritage center celebrating the African American community.

The Walker Theatre building is home to a nonprofit organization that serves Walker’s legacy through social justice initiatives and programs that support would-be entrepreneurs. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, more than 100 years since selling her first hair tonic, Madam CJ Walker continues to be an influential name in African American beauty care. Now owned by Sundial Brands, Madam CJ Walker Beauty Culture products are widely revered by generations of consumers.