Madame CJ Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on a Louisiana Delta plantation. She was the daughter of former slaves and was orphaned at seven. She spent her early years working in cotton fields and married at 14 in order to escape an abusive brother-in-law.
Walker's only daughter, A'Leila, was born in 1885. Two years later, Walker was widowed. She then moved to St. Louis to join her four brothers, who were working as barbers. Earning as little as $1.50 a day as a laundrywoman, Walker still managed to save enough money to educate her daughter.
In the 1890s, Walker began to suffer a scalp condition that caused her to lose most of her hair. After experimenting with several things that were already on the market, Walker began concocting her own creation to cure this ailment. In 1905, she changed her name to "Madame" CJ Walker and began to market Madame Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower.
Walker traveled extensively to promote her product, finally settling in Indianapolis in 1910. There, she built a factory, training school, and salons. In 1913, she went international, traveling to South America and the Caribbean to promote her products. At one point, Madame Walker employed more than 3,000 people.
In 1916, Walker left the day-to-day operations of her business and moved to New York City. There, she participated in many social and political causes. She was especially active in the NAACP's anti-lynching movement. In 1917, she was one of a group of African-American citizens who visited the White House to present the president with a petition for federal anti-lynching legislation.
Madame CJ Walker died in 1919 at her New York estate.