Thursday, March 6, 2014

Beauty for Ashes ~ The Story of Madam C.J. Walker

I love rags-to-riches stories. One of the most interesting I’ve found, has a connection with my own state of Indiana.

Sarah Breedlove-Madam C.J. Walker

A century before Oprah became a household name, another enterprising African-American woman rose up from humble beginnings to became the first female self-made millionaire in America. Madam C.J. Walker went literally from rags to riches, from ashes to beauty, by selling a line of hair care products she developed specifically for the African-American community.


Sarah's childhood home in Louisiana
Born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana in 1867, Walker was the first of her family to be born into freedom. Orphaned at the age of seven, Sarah went to live with an older sister and her husband in Vicksburg, Mississippi. By the age of fourteen, Sarah became desperate to escape the abuse she suffered at the hands of her brother-in-law and married a man named Moses McWilliams. Four years later, her daughter, Lelia was born. When Lelia was two Moses was killed, leaving Sarah widowed at the age of twenty.


Sarah moved to St. Louis, Missouri with her young daughter. There she worked as a washerwoman and domestic, putting Lelia through St. Louis public schools and Knoxville College in Tennessee. Shortly after their move to St. Louis, Sarah developed a scalp condition and began to lose her hair. Desperate to stop her hair loss, she prayed to God to save her hair and, according to a story she told to a Kansas City Star reporter, she was given the remedy in a dream.


She tried it, and it worked. She began experimenting with the remedy, mixing it in her washtubs with patent medicines. Her concoctions produced wonderful results when tried on herself, family members, and friends.


In 1905, she moved to Denver, Colorado to live with her widowed sister-in-law and nieces. There, she continued to develop and sell her hair products. A year later, she married Denver newspaperman, Charles Joseph Walker, who helped her promote and advertise her products. Her husband suggested that she adopt the name Madam C.J. Walker for her business.

Though her marriage lasted only a few years, Madam Walker’s business grew and grew. Leaving Lelia in Denver to oversee the business’s mail-order division, Walker traveled over the South and East, selling her products and teaching black hair stylists the C.J. Walker hair care system.


 During a visit to Indianapolis, Indiana in 1910, she decided that the centrally located city with its transportation facilities would be an ideal place to situate her company’s headquarters. In Indianapolis, her business flourished. She built a new factory and established a training center for
sales, research and production laboratories, as well as another beauty school.

Indianapolis factory

Madam C.J. Walker Agents
By 1917, Madam C.J. Walker’s Manufacturing Company was the largest African-American owned business in America. Her thousands of sales agents, dressed in white blouses and long black skirts, became a familiar sight in African-American communities throughout the United States.


Villa Lewaro

Her thriving business allowed Madam C.J. Walker to become a great philanthropist, helping to fund many African-American charities of her day. Still, she enjoyed a lavish lifestyle; dressing in the latest fashions, riding around town in her electric car, and dining at the best restaurants. She owned two townhouses in Indianapolis and New York as well as a twenty-room Georgian mansion called Villa Lewaro in Irving-on-Hudson, New York.

Madam Walker driving her electric car


At her death in 1919 at the age of fifty-two, Madam C.J. Walker had amassed a personal fortune in excess of one million dollars.


Nearly a century after her death, the name of Madam C.J. Walker remains a prominent one in Indianapolis. The Madam Walker Theater, a project begun by the lady herself and finished after her
death by her daughter, hosts both the performing arts and educational programs.

Ramona Cecil is a poet and award-winning author of historical fiction for the Christian market. A proud Hoosier, she often sets her stories in her home state of Indiana.

Check out her latest release at


  1. What a great story, Ramona. It just goes to show what determination will do. Madame Walker is an inspiration to us all.

  2. Thanks, Louise. Madam Walker's story is fairly well-known around Indianapolis, but I don't think it is widely known outside that city. It shows what can be done if you have enough intelligence and determination. Her story is indeed an inspirational one.

  3. Wow, I had no idea, Ramona! That was absolutely fascinating!! It's amazing how many of these little stories I have never heard. Plus, how hard it must have been to be successful as a black woman in those days. Amazing Thanks!

    1. Hi, MaryLu! It is amazing! I can't begin to imagine all she had to go through to achieve what she did.

  4. What a great rags to riches story! Thank you for sharing this interesting bit of history, Ramona!

    texaggs2000 at gmail dot com

    1. Hi, Britney! I was happy to share this one. Very inspirational!

  5. So interesting about Madame Walker. She really represented the American Dream to grow up as an orphan and die in her fifties with $1M to her name. Thanks for the interesting post. sharon wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. Hi, Sharon. I agree. Madam Walker's is a remarkable story, especially happening at the turn of the last century. Thanks for stopping by to comment!

  6. Madame C.J.Walker was such an inspirational lady. Thank you for sharing this amazing story.

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

    1. Thanks, Melanie. I felt like this was a story that needed telling.

  7. Wow this was a very interesting article. Really enjoyed it. Now they act like its such a new thing to make Electric cars. She was a very smart woman. Wish I had some of her med for losing hair. Maxie mac262(at)me(dot0com

  8. They say "Everything old is new again." Guess that could be applied to the electric car. I could use some of Madam Walkers hair-growing tonic myself. LOL