Donald MacInnes: A millionaire before the dawn of civil rights

In The Red

My corner of your paper was never meant to be too taxing. As a result, I don't often test your knowledge of the history of business. However, as I have given you a fairly easy ride for the past couple of years, I thought I would raise the ante and pose a rather testing question.

Riddle me this: who was the first female African-American to become a self-made millionaire? As meaningful civil rights didn't start to seep into US culture until the mid to late Sixties, you could be forgiven for assuming that, prior to this age of enlightenment, only sports or showbiz stars could have risen to a level of such financial independence. But surprisingly, this achievement dates back to the turn of the 20th century.

Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867 in a small Louisiana village. Her parents had been slaves but were given their freedom after the North triumphed in the Civil War. Sadly, both parents died when Sarah was seven. Three years later she began working as a housemaid. She married when she was 14, but was widowed at 20 when her husband was murdered. Six years later Sarah married again, but that union lasted less than a decade. A single parent, she then supported herself and her daughter, Lelia, by working in a laundry while also attending night school.

In 1905, when she was 38, Sarah began developing haircare products for African-American women. They became very successful and Sarah and her daughter moved to Colorado, where she met and married a man called Charles Joseph Walker. She took her new title for her product range, marketing it under the name Madam CJ Walker.

Sarah then opened a beauty college and expanded her haircare business, at one point employing more than 1,000 women, selling her products door to door across the US.

In 1914 – just nine years after inventing her haircare products – the 47-year-old Madame CJ Walker became the first female African-American millionaire. Aside from her business interests, she worked tirelessly to educate and inspire black women and donated a large part of her fortune to humanitarian causes. She died in 1919, aged just 51.

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