Madame C.J. Walker: African American Millionaire

Madame C.J. Walker is a notable Indianapolis person, whose name still stands high above the Circle City atop the Madame C.J. Walker Theatre in Indianapolis downtown. As an African American businesswoman, hair care entrepreneur and philanthropist, Madame C.J. Walker was the first female who became a millionaire by her own achievements. This strong African American woman still stands today as a role model for young girls in Indianapolis and across the United States who dream big.

Born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, she was the first member of her family to live a life entirely outside of slavery. As the first born free member of the Breedlove family, Walker held all the hopes and dreams of her slave ancestors close to her heart as she strove to make something of herself. She was married for the first time when she was only fourteen years old to Moses McWilliams. She had a daughter with him. However, he died in 1887 making her a widow at only twenty.

She moved to St. Louis, Missouri to live close to her brothers.  After finding work as a laundress, she scrimped and scraped to make a better life for her child. With a wage of only a dollar and a half per day, she was still able to see to it that her daughter was educated. While in St. Louis, she became heavily involved with St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she gained speaking, interpersonal and organizational skills that would benefit her for years to come.

In 1905, at the age of thirty-eight, Sarah Breedlove secured a job as a sales agent for Annie Malone. Malone was an African American businesswoman, who manufactured and sold hair care products. Inspired by Malone’s mildly successful business, Sarah decided to create a hair care line of her own. She worked with the Denver pharmacist, who created Malone’s formulas to invent her own products. Legend has it that the ingredient for her world famous “Wonderful Hair Grower” came to her in a dream.

The very next year, in 1906, Sarah remarried to Charles Joseph Walker, a St. Louis newspaperman. When she took on his last name, she changed her name to Madame C.J. Walker and founded Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing company. Under this label, she sold hair care and beauty products specifically designed for African American women. Though she divorced Walker in 1910, she kept his name and moved her operations to Indy.

By 1917, Madame C.J. Walker owned the largest African American run business in the United States, making her not only a landmark in history for African Americans but also women. She used her new found success to promote opportunities for others, particularly her fellow black residents of Indiana. Women that worked for her company could earn between $5.00 and $15.00 per day.

In addition to providing jobs for many African Americans, Madame C.J. Walker used her exorbitant finances for philanthropic efforts. Upon her death she left two-thirds of her estate to charities and educational institutions including Tuskegee Institute and Bethune Cookman College. Her $5,000 donation to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign was the largest donation the organization had ever received at that time.

Walker owned real estate in Indianapolis and New York. Her New York estate was actually in the same neighborhood as John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould. Her Italianate Villa was designed by the first registered black architect in New York, Vertner Tandy.

After her death in 1919, her daughter, A’Lelia Walker carried on her mother’s philanthropy. She lent support to many artists of the Harlem Renaissance including Langston Hughes and Nora Zeal Hurston. Today, Madame C. J. Walker’s legacy is still an unbelievably important part of Indianapolis history.

Madame Walker Theatre
617 Indiana Avenue
Indianapolis, IN 46202

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