Happy Birthday, Madam C.J. Walker, the First African-American Female Millionaire
by Jen O’Neill, Finding Dulcinea
Although she never finished school, Madam C.J. Walker’s business acumen paved her rags-to-riches story. She stated, “If I accomplished anything in life, it was because I have been willing to work hard.” Considered the wealthiest African-American woman of her time, she’s called the “original Oprah Winfrey”; she used her position to oppose racial discrimination, and support civic, educational and social institutions for African Americans.
Against her husband’s advice, she and her daughter moved to Pittsburgh and opened Lelia College, which offered courses in hair care. The duo also trained African-American women to be their sales agents for a variety of hair and beauty products.
At a 1914 National Negro Business League convention, Walker stated, “I am not satisfied in making money for myself, I endeavor to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race.”
By 1916, Walker’s company reported yearly sales of $250,000, and Walker herself was the first African-American woman to become a millionaire in recorded history.
Madam C.J. Walker’s official Web site provides a timeline of key events in her life, illustrated by photographs.
The Rest of the Story
Walker also worked tirelessly to help others with her money; she started a school in Africa, and made donations to African-American organizations. Despite her prosperity, she still faced discrimination. On one occasion, she paid two times the amount that a white customer paid for a movie ticket. She sued the theater and also vowed to build her own. The Walker Building opened eight years after her death, and the Madame Walker Theatre Center is still thriving today in Indianapolis.
Walker’s busy lifestyle led to her death from hypertension on May 25, 1919. Her daughter A’Lelia Walker Robinson took over her thriving business, and became an important social figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, has written her ancestor’s biography, “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.”