This is the question; who was the first self-made multimillionaire black woman?
Here is her picture:
"Got myself a start by giving myself a start"
If you said Oprah Winfrey, you'd be between 75 and 100 years to late to identify the first one.
She said of herself, in an address to a black businessman's association, "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.”
Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919) was lauded as “the first black woman millionaire in America” for her successful line of hair care products. Born Sarah Breedlove, she was widowed by age 20 and took work as a laundress. After seeking treatment for hair loss, she developed the “Walker system” and sold her homemade products directly to black women. A talent for self-promotion helped build a booming enterprise, and she spent lavishly on luxurious homes. Walker also funded scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute and donated large sums to the NAACP, the black YMCA and dozens of other charities.
Born Sarah Breedlove, the daughter of Louisiana sharecroppers, Walker was orphaned at six, married at fourteen, and widowed at twenty with a two-year-old daughter to care for. She resettled in St. Louis and went to work as a laundress. Her early years reflected patterns all too common for black women of her generation. At age 14, to escape both her oppressive working environment and the frequent mistreatment she endured at the hands of her brother-in-law, Sarah married a man named Moses McWilliams. On June 6, 1885, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, A'Lelia. When Moses died two years later, Sarah and A'Lelia moved to St. Louis, where Sarah's brothers had established themselves as barbers. There, Sarah found work as a washerwoman, earning $1.50 a day—enough to send her daughter to the city's public schools. She also attended public night school whenever she could. While in St. Louis, Breedlove met her second husband Charles J. Walker, who worked in advertising and would later help promote her hair care business.
In 1905 Walker, who had been losing her hair, sought a treatment for the condition. The method of beauty culture she developed revolutionized black hair care. The combination of scalp preparation, application of lotions, and use of iron combs became known as the “Walker system.” She distinguished her products from the hair straighteners advocated by white cosmetic firms, arguing that her treatment was geared to the special health needs of blacks. She sold her homemade products directly to black women, using a personal approach that won her customers and eventually a fleet of loyal saleswomen.
Walker trained her “beauty culturalists” after establishing her business headquarters in Denver, with a branch in Pittsburgh managed by her daughter A’Lelia. Her second husband, Charles J. Walker, a journalist, helped promote his wife’s flourishing enterprise. Her lectures and demonstrations won thousands of customers, and in 1910 she moved her headquarters to Indianapolis. Her business employed over three thousand workers, mainly door-to-door saleswomen. Her product line of nearly twenty hair and skin items was widely advertised in the black press.
Walker, whose talent for self-promotion made her one of the best-known black Americans during the first quarter of the century, was lauded as “the first black woman millionaire in America.” Her largesse was legendary, and she spent extravagant sums on her Manhattan townhouse. When her daughter inherited the mansion in the 1920s, it became a salon for members of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also owned a luxurious country home, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington-on-Hudson, designed by black architect Vertner Tandy.
Walker was as generous as she was successful, establishing a network of clubs for her employees and offering bonuses and prizes to those who contributed to their communities through charitable works. She promoted female talent: the charter of her company provided that only a woman could serve as president. She was a standard-bearer for black self-help, funding scholarships for women at Tuskegee Institute and donating large sums to the NAACP, the black YMCA, and dozens of black charities.
Madam Walker’s plans for her headquarters, the Walker Building, were carried out after her premature death at fifty-one. The structure, completed in 1927, today is part of a historic renovation district in downtown Indianapolis.