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Madam C.J. Walker drives three friends in an early automobile, 1911.

How Madam C.J. Walker Made It (and Shared It)

The entrepreneur born Sarah Breedlove to sharecroppers rose to become an early millionaire — and worked to help advance fellow Black Americans.

by Lynn Freehill-Maye
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She built one of the most striking homes on the Hudson River — and the nation’s first female self-made millionaire managed it all on her own, giving back generously along the way.

Madam C.J. Walker drives three friends in an early automobile, 1911. (Photo: New York Public Library Special Collections)

Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867. Her parents, Owen and Minerva, were Louisiana sharecroppers who had earlier been enslaved. She was their fifth child, yet the first born directly into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

Walker’s early life was traumatic, as the numbers show: Her parents both died by the time she was seven. She was married by 14, a mother at 17, and a widow at 20. With a daughter, A’Lelia, to support on her own, she was determined to do better.

From left, Madam C.J. Walker; daughter A’Lelia Walker; and granddaughter Mae Walker Perry. (Photos: Courtesy the Indiana Historical Society)

Walker moved to St. Louis, where she washed clothes for $1.50 per day. There she also met her future husband, Charles J. Walker, whose name would inspire her empire. After losing part of her hair to scalp disease, she came up with a formula for a hair-care system that involved preparing the scalp with lotions and pomades.

She launched her business with just over $1 in capital. Summoning her powerful entrepreneurial instincts, Walker continued moving for opportunity — from Denver to Pittsburgh to Indianapolis, which had a prosperous Black business community. Eventually she employed thousands. Many of them were Black saleswomen who found their own economic success through her company.

Graduates of the Madam C.J. Walker School of Beauty Culture in 1938. Walker employed thousands, including many Black women, through her company. (Photo: Courtesy the Indiana Historical Society)

Within a dozen years, she’d gone from washerwoman to millionaire. Charles J. Walker helped with aspects of the business like mail orders and advertising early on, but eventually the couple drifted apart and divorced.

By this time Walker was so successful she had a presence in New York City, but she also wanted a country home. The showplace she built, Villa Lewaro in Irvington, was designed by noted Black architect Vertner Tandy. It stood not far from the estates of John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould.

A gathering of Walker Co. saleswomen at Villa Lewaro. (Photo: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives)

Villa Lewaro became a gathering place for Harlem Renaissance intellectuals, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia Walker, became a significant figure in the movement in her own right.

Madam Walker herself was a generous donor, especially to causes advancing the Black community. She gave scholarships to women at the Tuskegee Institute and significant funding to the anti-lynching campaign of the NAACP, among other institutions.

Madam C.J. Walker (second from left) with luminaries including Booker T. Washington at a YMCA opening, 1913. (Photo: Courtesy the Indiana Historical Society)

Helena Doley, a later owner of Villa Lewaro, has described the home as part of a communal legacy. “Madam didn’t build this house because she had an ego … or to say, ‘Here I am, a grand lady. Look what I have done,'” Doley told the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “She built it as an inspiration for a people, for a community, for all of us of any color, to see what could be done. What could be done with tenacity, with perseverance, with just dogged determination.”

Walker acknowledged that her success had come with huge effort. “If I accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard,” Walker told the New York Times. “I have never yet started anything doubtingly, and I have always believed in keeping at things with a vim.”


The Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company headquarters and Walker Theatre in 1930. (Photo: Courtesy the Indiana Historical Society)

Walker died in 1919. Yet in recent years, a century after she shattered barriers, Walker has been freshly celebrated. On Her Own Ground, a biography by her great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, became a bestseller in 2001.

In 2020, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer starred as Walker in the four-part Netflix series “Self Made.” And last year — fittingly for an entrepreneur who shared her success from the beauty and hygiene industry — Mattel released a Barbie doll of Walker as part of its Inspiring Women series.

Lynn Freehill-Maye is managing editor of Scenic Hudson’s HV Viewfinder. She is also a Hudson Valley-based sustainability writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Scientific American, Sierra, Civil Eats, CityLab, Modern Farmer, and beyond. 

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Hudson Valley Viewfinder is a collaborative, community digital magazine sharing what inspires us about the beautiful Hudson Valley. We publish original stories and multimedia content about all things sustainable in the region along the Hudson River — including agriculture, science, wildlife, outdoor recreation, green transportation, environmental justice, and more.

Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

Keep up with the latest stories by subscribing to Scenic Hudson’s monthly digital newsletter, and connect with us on social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.

Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

Keep up with the latest stories by subscribing to Scenic Hudson’s monthly digital newsletter, and connect with us on social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

We’re always looking for ideas around our main topic areas of Climate Solutions, Land + Air + Water, Plants + Animals, History + Culture, Outdoors, and Community.
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We’re always looking for ideas around our main topic areas of Climate Solutions, Land + Air + Water, Plants + Animals, History + Culture, Outdoors, and Community.
  • Journalists and writers who have deep familiarity with New York and the Hudson Valley, we’d love to have you contribute! Please do introduce yourself by email, sharing writing samples and any relevant pitches you may have.
  • Photographers and videographers, we’d love to hear from you and see what you do. Please send along a portfolio with images or footage that showcases your best and/or most relevant work, with an emphasis on anything captured outdoors. 
  • Illustrators, we commission artwork on the regular. Drop us a note with some of the beauty you’ve created.
  • Media Partners & Social Media Influencers, we welcome opportunities to team up on series and campaigns. Reach out with any background about yourselves and your ideas.
  • We love to collaborate with media outlets, especially on episodic series (like these) of interest to our shared audiences. Past collaborations have included radio interviews, panel discussions and other events, original artwork, and e-blasts, all furthering the campaign’s excitement and reach. 
  • We also love to partner with other organizations whose missions align with Scenic Hudson’s. Feel free to reach out with some background on your group and its work.
  • Writers, photographers, and creatives, if you have an idea for a series or content campaign that might be a good fit, drop us a line!

Businesses, please note that as a nonprofit, Scenic Hudson is restricted from advertising or promoting for-profit companies, through Viewfinder or other outlets. While we understand content managers may wish to alert us to your company’s role in a relevant topic, we are unable to add links to businesses to our stories.

  • We love to collaborate with media outlets, especially on episodic series (like these) of interest to our shared audiences. Past collaborations have included radio interviews, panel discussions and other events, original artwork, and e-blasts, all furthering the campaign’s excitement and reach. 
  • We also love to partner with other organizations whose missions align with Scenic Hudson’s. Feel free to reach out with some background on your group and its work.
  • Writers, photographers, and creatives, if you have an idea for a series or content campaign that might be a good fit, drop us a line!

Businesses, please note that as a nonprofit, Scenic Hudson is restricted from advertising or promoting for-profit companies, through Viewfinder or other outlets. While we understand content managers may wish to alert us to your company’s role in a relevant topic, we are unable to add links to businesses to our stories.

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