Madam C. J. Walker made lots of money. More money than probably any women–black or white–had ever made before in America. And Madam Walker made the money herself. She started her own business and built a factory.
Madam Walker revolutionized the business of developing and selling hair-care products for black women. She did it during the early 1900’s, when life for black people was hard and oftentimes very dangerous. Mobs of white people killed, or lynched, black people; segregation (the separation of groups of people according to race) was legal; and women did not have the same rights as men, including the right to vote.
Madam Walker did much more than make a lot of money. Her hair-care products helped women have a better sense of their own beauty. Her business also gave work to many black women. Madam Walker helped other people, especially black artists, and civil rights causes by giving generously of her money and her time.
“My object in life is not simply to make money for myself or to spend it on myself,” Madam Walker said. “I love to use a part of what I make in trying to help others.” She never forgot where she came from or stopped dreaming of how life could be better.
For most of her life, Madam Walker had very little money. She was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, in a cabin on a cotton plantation owned by Robert W. Burney in Delta, Louisiana. Burney’s plantation covered acres of dark brown soil that stretched along the Mississippi River.
The Breedlove’s cabin had just one room, with a fireplace at one end, a few windows without glass panes, and a front porch that ran the length of the house. The sides of the cabin were bare boards with cracks between, and when it rained, the roof leaked.
Until the Civil War ended in 1865, two years before Sarah was born, her parents, Owen and Minerva, her sister Louvenia and her brothers were slaves on Burney’s plantation. After the Union Army won the war, the Breedloves and all the other slaves in America were free, but life was still hard.
Many white people refused to hire black people. Banks would not lend them money so that they could buy land or a house or start a business. Former slaves were kept from learning how to do jobs other than farm work or manual labor. Some white Southerners joined secret racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. They terrorized black people by destroying their property, whipping them, and lynching them. Despite these obstacles, black people worked hard to build new lives as free people.
The Breedloves decided to stay at Burney’s plantation, only now they were sharecroppers instead of slaves. They stayed in their cabin and did the same work growing cotton. Now, however, they could sell the cotton they grew to earn money. The problem was that first the Breedloves had to “share” part of their crop with Burney. He could decide how big his share would be, and he usually took a big one. Even when the cotton crop was good, the Breedloves did not make much money. When bad weather or insects damaged the cotton crop, the Breedloves ended up owing money to Burney.
They worked long hours planting, weeding, and picking cotton. By age five, Sarah worked in the field with her family. The sun was very hot, the ground was hard, and the air was dusty. The boll, or pod, that the white fluffy cotton came from, was rough and hurt Sarah’s fingers.
Sarah also helped her mother and Louvenia when they washed clothes for their family or took in white peoples’ laundry to earn money. There were no washing machines or running water. The water from the Mississippi River was too muddy to use, so clean water for washing came from cisterns, or tanks, where rain water collected.
Sarah helped her mother and sister carry heavy buckets of water to fill big wooden washtubs. They heated the water over the fire. Then, after sorting the laundry, scrubbing it on washboards, rinsing it with plain water, they hung each piece on a line to dry. The wet laundry was heavy, and the soap contained lye, a strong substance that got laundry clean but hurt people’s skin. After a day of washing, Sarah and her mother and sister had red, cracked, sore hands and tired and aching arms and backs.
By the time Sarah turned seven both of her parents had died. Her brothers had moved away. Sarah lived with her sister Louvenia who was married to Jesse Powell, a man whom Sarah later said was “mean.” Before long, they moved across the river to Vicksburg, Mississippi, a city on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, crowded with steamboats, flatboats, and barges carrying goods, livestock, and people.