Madam C.J. Walker: “I got my start by giving myself a start.”

February 26, 2009


Photo: Courtesy A'Lelia Bundles/Walker Family/

Photo: Courtesy A’Lelia Bundles/Walker Family/

In recognition of Black History Month and Women’s history month, AAUW is profiling women who fought to break through barriers, women we should never forget. This week we feature Madam C.J. Walker (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919) an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and social activist. Madam Walker is known as one of the first self-made female millionaires in America, she broke through economic barriers in the early 1900’s. Today’s guest blogger is A’Lelia Bundles, great-great-granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker and author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, on a Delta, Louisiana plantation, this daughter of former slaves transformed herself from an uneducated farm laborer and laundress into one of the 20th century’s most successful, self-made women entrepreneurs.

Orphaned at age seven, Madam C. J. Walker often said, “I got my start by giving myself a start.” Widowed at 20 with a two-year-old daughter, she moved to St. Louis, where she worked as a washerwoman and struggled to send her daughter to school. Friendships with other black women who were members of St. Paul A.M.E. Church and the National Association of Colored Women exposed her to a new way of viewing herself and the world.

During the 1890s, she began to experiment with many homemade remedies and formulas when a scalp ailment caused her to lose most of her hair. After moving to Denver in 1905 and marrying newspaperman Charles Joseph (C. J.) Walker, she introduced a line of products including a vegetable shampoo and her Wonderful Hair Grower.

“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, 1912

By early 1910, Madam Walker had settled in Indianapolis, where she built a factory, salon, and beauty school. In 1913, while Walker traveled to Central America and the Caribbean to expand her business, her daughter A’Lelia, moved into a fabulous new Harlem townhouse. The townhouse included an elegant beauty salon (known as Walker Salon) on the first floor and private living quarters on the upper three floors.

Walker moved to New York in 1916, leaving trusted employees to run the day-to-day operations of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis. She continued to oversee the business, but she also turned her attention to Harlem’s social and political life, taking special interest in the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement to which she contributed $5,000.

As her business continued to grow, Walker organized her agents into local and state clubs. Her Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention in Philadelphia in 1917 was one of the first national meetings of businesswomen in the country. Walker used the gathering not only to reward her agents for their business success, but also to encourage their political activism on behalf of African Americans and women. “This is the greatest country under the sun,” she told them. “But we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice.”

By the time she died in 1919 at her estate, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, Walker had helped create the role of the 20th-century, self-made American businesswoman, established herself as a pioneer of the modern black hair-care and cosmetics industry, and set standards in the African American community for corporate and community giving.

Tenacity and perseverance, faith in herself and in God, quality products, and “honest business dealings” were the elements and strategies she prescribed for aspiring entrepreneurs who requested the secret to her rags-to-riches ascent. “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she once commented. “And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”

A'Lelia BundlesToday Madam Walker’s legacy survives most tangibly through two National Historic Landmarks: Villa Lewaro and the Madam Walker Theatre Center, a performance and arts education venue housed in the former Walker Company headquarters in Indianapolis. Walker continues to inspire new generations of entrepreneurs and students in numerous ways, from dozens of awards named for her to a Harvard Business School case study.

As her great-great-granddaughter, it is my great joy to share her story with thousands of people each year through speeches, though my book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, and through our website at

Claudia Richards By:   |   February 26, 2009


  1. Avatar Diana Boyd says:

    It is indeed a great pleasure to read of Madam C.J. Walker I have never heard of her before today 12/06/2012, to know she accomplished so much in the past is God blessing that the people of now is standing on her faith and shoulders. This education I will share.
    Diana Boyd Rock Hill South Carolina

  2. Avatar Mikayla Wilson says:

    Madame C.j. Walker is my role model!!!!! She is my favorite famous black person!!!!!!!!!!;-)

  3. Avatar crystle says:

    i like madam cj walker im doing a project on her im in 5 th grade she smy role model i look up to her i love her so much i wish i was her niece

  4. Dear Ms A’Lelia Bundles,

    Thank you so much for keeping the memory of Madam CJ Walker alive. Her story is quite inspirational. It really makes you believe no matter the odds you can suceed. For me, the key message is there is an opportunity in every problem.

    Richard, Kampala – Uganda

  5. Avatar Latreece Daniels says:

    Hi I’m the great great niece of a man by the name of Charlie Breedlove. He traced our roots back to Madam C.J. Walker. I think we may be related.

    • Dear Ms. Daniels,
      Please contact me at I would be interested in seeing the family tree your uncle created. In the meantime you might want to look at the family tree in my book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, to see if you can find a common link with Sarah Breedlove’s brothers and sister, who lived in Louisiana and St. Louis.
      Best wishes,
      A’Lelia Bundles

  6. Gloria Gloria says:

    No matter how many times I hear this story it never fails to move me. Mme Walker exemplifies what our people are all about–hard work, dignity, perseverance and faith. Please pass this on to young people that you know-they our our future. The message still rings true.

  7. Avatar Kimberly says:

    Can you put more photos of Madam c.j. Walker on here!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Thank You, KImberly

  8. Avatar Angela says:

    Even though we made plans to start our family, I broke up with my Childs father when I was six months pregnant after I caught him cheating.

    I was a new, single mother. I had no idea how I would care for her and myself. After the birth of my child, Angelica, I wrote this quote on my mirror, “I got my start by giving myself a start”.

    I’ve never erased that quote. The lipstick may have faded, but the strength of Madam C. J. Walker still holds true. If she can do it, so can you, so can we, so can I!

    Still a single mother, today we live in a four bedroom home with my own office and a fireplace. We own everything in our home. In 2010, my plans are to purchase the house as well.

    I just posted Madam C. J. Walkers story onto my Facebook page.

    This morning I was asked to give a 45 minute leadership talk for young girls in the heart of the Black Community in Minneapolis. This is a part of my leadership story – God Bless you and thank you for keeping Ms. Walker’s story alive and well to help inspire generations of others.


  9. Avatar Angelica says:

    can u tell me one of madames cj walkers haircare products

    i have very bad hair so i really need it my hair is so dried out

    u can text back at

  10. Avatar alexander says:

    this is good information for kids like me.

  11. Avatar Claudia says:

    Hi Jo,

    Please continue to watch us. Women’s History month will have regular posts on women breaking through barriers.

    Please comment again in the future and share these posts with your friends.


  12. Avatar Ashley Carr says:

    What an amazing woman Madame C. J. Walker was. I hope that Madame Walker’s story gets made into a movie in the future. How kind of her great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, to share her story here. Had the pleasure of meeting A’Lelia Bundles a few a years ago and I would say that she’s quite an amazing woman, too.

  13. Avatar Jo Turner says:

    I’m so happy to see this on the blog. It’s very inspirational. I hope you’ll put more “ladies” like this on the blog in the future.

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