Voya Celebrates African American Pioneers: Madam CJ Walker

This is an account of Madam C.J. Walker, an African-American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and social activist. She rose from poverty and was the first documented American female self-made millionaire recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records.² Madam Walker created a beauty business hiring black women as a means to support themselves, and provided a needed service to her community. She donated generously and supported the NAACP to help stop lynching and empower future African-American lives.¹ This is her story. 

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, she was one of six children of Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove, former slaves-turned sharecroppers following the Civil War. Sarah was orphaned when she was seven and worked as a domestic servant. Her first marriage at age-14 was to Moses McWilliams, in part to escape an abusive brother-in-law, left her a single mother of a daughter, Lelia in 1887, when McWilliams died.¹

With little to no education and seeking a way out of poverty, in 1889, Walker moved to St. Louis to be with her four brothers. There, she worked as a laundress and cook. She eventually remarried to John Davis only to divorce a few short years later. Facing incredible financial and physical stress she started experiencing hair loss. Her life changed only after she began using hair tonic developed by Annie Turbo Malone, an African American business woman, impressed by her products, Walker joined her sales team. She then met and married Charles Joseph Walker in 1906 when she moved to Colorado and became known as Madam C.J. Walker. With a few dollars in her pocket and a little help from her husband, she launched her own line of African-American hair products.¹

After her divorce from Walker in 1910, she relocated to Indiana to build the Walker Manufacturing Company where she advocated independence for black women. She started the ‘Walker System” employing more than 40,000 black women (and men) licensed sales agents who earned strong commissions. Walker also found time to found the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association in 1917.¹

Her philanthropic and social justice activism grew as her wealth increased. Before passing in May of 1919 from kidney failure and complications brought on by hypertension, Madam C.J. Walker donated to the NAACP to stop the practice of lynching and donated a sizeable amount of her fortune to various individuals, charities and educational institutions. Her daughter Lelia took over as president of the Walker Manufacturing Company thereafter. The original corporate headquarters building was renamed the Madame Walker Theatre Center, opened in December 1927 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.² Following Madam Walker’s death, over the years she was the focus of a television series starring Octavia Spencer, Self-Made: Inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker and a 1987 documentary entitled, Two Dollars and a Dream.²

Origins of Black History Month

Black History Month began in 1926 when Dr. Carter G. Woodson, an African American, promoted Negro History Week in February and the good people at Kent State University first observed it in 1970. In 1976, Black History Month (BHM) became a national month long holiday celebration when President Gerald Ford recognized “the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history” in a speech to mark the U.S. Bicentennial. BHM also coincides with National Freedom Day (NFD), which is the day that President Lincoln signed the 13th amendment to abolish slavery on February 1. Major Richard Robert Wright Sr., a former slave, believed that freedom for all Americans should have a designated day. NFD is intended to promote harmony and equal opportunity among all citizens and to remember that ours is a nation devoted to the ideal of freedom.

At Voya, we believe in honoring all Americans who came before us. In honor of Black History Month, join us as we pay tribute to the generations of African Americans who made immeasurable contributions to us all while demonstrating greatness, courage and personal freedom in the face of adversity.

Learn How Voya is Celebrating Black History Month

Related Items

¹ Chicago - Michals, Debra.  "Madam C. J. Walker." National Women's History Museum.  2015.  www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/madam-cj-walker, last date accessed, December 21, 2020

² Wikipedia, Madam CJ Walker, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madam_C._J._Walker; last accessed December 21, 2020