This Day in World History
December 23, 1867
Madam C. J. Walker born
Madam C. J. Walker tells her own story: “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 preparation… I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
Madam C. J. Walker was born on a Louisiana plantation in 1867 as Sarah Breedlove. Her parents, former slaves, died when she was seven. After several years of farm labor, she married; when her husband died, she moved to St. Louis, to join four brothers who worked as barbers. After marrying Charles Joseph Walker—and taking the name Madam C. J. Walker—she developed and began marketing a hair product that gave African American women’s hair shine and luster. Marketing her product by traveling across the South to sell it door-to-door, she saw success. She built a factory in Indianapolis to manufacture her products and hired hundreds of black women as “Walker agents” to sell her wares across the country. Later she expanded the sales effort to other countries.
Walker was not just a successful businesswoman but also active with philanthropies and political causes. She joined the anti-lynching campaign that was active in the early 1900s and took part in a delegation of African American leaders who went to the White House in 1917 asking for an federal law banning lynching. Her daughter, who carried on the business after her death in 1919, also continued her mother’s interest in cultural affairs: her home became a gathering place for African American writers during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.