“There is no royal flower-strewn path to success. And if here is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.” Madam C. J. Walker
Oprah wasn’t the first female African-American millionaire who rose to the top from humble beginnings. That honor belongs to Sarah Breedlove, beautiful, charismatic saleswoman, inventor, philanthropist, and entrepreneur.
In the late 1860’s, the Civil War was over. It was a time of emancipation for African-Americans, although the fight for equality and true freedom would last many more years. Black men voted in a municipal election in Tuscumbia, Alabama, while Richmond, Virginia saw black demonstrator’s stage ride-ins on street cars. A Black man graduated from dental college and congress created the first all-Black university. Times were changing and the hard fight for equality had begun.
Sarah Breedlove was born for these times. Less than half a century later she would prove that guts, determination, and perseverance could rise above politics and prejudice. She would become a role model for not only African-American women, but for women everywhere.
Born on December 23, 1867, the fifth child of former slaves Owen and Minerva Breedlove, Sarah was the first of their six children to be born free. Their emancipation did nothing to free them from long hours of grueling hard work on the cotton plantation in Delta, Louisiana. Since there was no school, at the time for the children to go to, they worked along with their parents to help support the family.
Sarah’s first memories were of sleeping in a one-room cabin on a dirt floor. When she was old enough, her mother taught Sarah and her sister how to wash clothes. It was back-breaking labor involving large tubs of boiling water and harsh lye soap. When Sarah was just seven years old tragedy struck the impoverished family. Her mother died, possibly of cholera, leaving her father with six children to provide for. Owen Breedlove soon remarried but lived for just a few months, leaving the children with no support.
The Breedlove children tried to work to support themselves with little success. When the cholera epidemic killed thousands in the south, Sarah fled with her siblings to Vicksburg, Mississippi. She moved in with her sister Louvenia and helped support herself by working in the nearby fields. Louvenia’s husband, Jesse Powell was cruel to Sarah and in order to escape an intolerable situation she married Moses McWilliams when she was 14 years old. They had one child, Lelia, in 1885. But in 1887 tragedy struck again. Moses McWilliams was killed, some say by a lynch mob. Sarah was now on her own with a child to support.
Sarah decided to join her four brothers who had become barbers and moved to St. Louis, Missouri. She found work taking in laundry. Sweating over tubs of boiling water, she thought of her daughter. She was determined to provide her with an education and a better life. The work was so hard and stressful that she began losing her hair. One night, she had a dream and was told by a “large black man” what to mix up to put on her hair to help it grow. When her hair started growing at a faster rate than it was falling out, she knew she had to market her product.
She soon came up with th e”Walker System” which consisted of hair growth ointment, hair oil, psoriasis scalp treatment, and a wider toothed hot comb especially designed for African-American hair. In 1905, when one of her brothers died, Sarah moved in with her sister-in-law in Denver, Colorado. She worked there as a cook and sold her products in her spare time.
While in Denver, she met a newspaper man who had some brilliant marketing ideas. Charles Joseph Walker and Sarah married January 4, 1906 and “Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company” was born.
Sarah went door to door selling her products. She traveled to the southern and eastern states and started advertising in Black newspapers throughout the United States. Although Charles Walker supported her in most of her business endeavors, the couple disagreed on how to grow the company. They divorced, although he stayed on in the company as a sales agent. Sarah was now free to devote all of her time to building the business.
She began using agents to sell her products. Sarah had a heart for women who were in the same situation that she had been in. She wanted to give these African-American women a chance to support themselves and their children and give them power over their circumstances. In 1908 she established Lelia College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to train women, not only to sell her products, but to build their sense of self-worth and to encourage them. Two years later she had over a thousand agents. By 1910 she had moved the company to Indianapolis, Indiana where she built another training school, a salon, and a manufacturing plant. Three years later she built another Lelia College.
In 1913, to expand the business, Sarah traveled to the Caribbean and Central America. Lelia stayed in Harlem and moved into their glamorous new townhouse and salon designed by Vertner Tandy, a prominent black architect. When Sarah returned from her trip she too, moved into the townhouse. Turning more of the daily business operations over to Ransom and Alice Kelly, she began to take an interest in Black political movements of the time. She was especially involved with the Anti-Lynching Movement and donated quite a bit of money to their fund.
Sarah became known as a more than generous philanthropist, she sent at least six African-American young people to college every year. She donated large sums to the NAACP and other African-American charities. She promoted philanthropy in her work force by offering bonuses to those who performed charitable work.
By 1914, the poverty-stricken illiterate child who slept in a one room cabin on a dirt floor and who had less than $5 in her pocket, just a decade before, was worth a million dollars. One of her famous quotes was “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.”
By 1917, with the business grossing over $500,000 annually, Sarah had built a mansion on the Hudson called “Villa Lewaro”. (The name Lewaro honored her daughter by being the first two letters in each of her names.) The home cost $250,000 and was a magnificent showplace with thirty-two rooms, marble statues, original paintings, and a $8,000 organ. Sadly, she would live in it only until 1919 when she died of heart complications. She left behind over a million dollars, two-thirds of which was given to charity.
In 1976, “Villa Lewaro” became a National Historic Landmark. In 2014 the beautifully restored mansion was designated a National Treasure to preserve the legacy of Sarah Breedlove Walker.