The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow A Century of Segregation
Jim Crow Stories
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Jim Crow Stories

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Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove) (1867-1919)
Madam C.J. Walker

Born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana cotton plantation, Madam C.J. Walker became the first black American woman self-made millionaire. Orphaned at age seven, married at age fourteen, and widowed at twenty with a two-year-old daughter, she moved to St. Louis. She decided to start her own line of hair-care products. In 1906, with a few dollars in savings, she set up a mail-order business in Denver, Colorado with the help of her new husband, Charles Walker. Although they later divorced, she kept his name. The company became an extraordinary success. It included a beauty school in Pittsburgh, and opened offices in Indianapolis and Harlem.

By 1916 the Walker Company included 20,000 male and female agents, several schools and manufacturing plants, and operated in the United States, Central America, and the Caribbean. Madam Walker believed in philanthropy and donated to the YMCA, the NAACP, and the National Association of Colored Women. She also gave grants to Tuskegee and Palmer Memorial Institute. At the 1912 National Negro Business League convention, League founder Booker T. Washington refused her request to be on the program. Instead, she spoke from the floor and so impressed the audience that she was invited back the following year as a keynote speaker.

In 1918 she gave the keynote speech at several NAACP fund-raisers for the anti-lynching effort. Madam Walker was a strong advocate of black women's economic independence, which she encouraged at a time when few jobs were available for women other than teacher or maid. In speech she once gave, she said: "I want to say to every Negro woman present, don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. ... Get up and make them!"

--Richard Wormser

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Did you Know ...

Walker developed her hair-care products in response to a scalp condition that caused her hair to fall out.
Related Pages
National Negro Business League
Booker T. Washington
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