The Forgotten Story Behind America's First Self-Made Millionaire

When we think of America's early self-made millionaires, names like Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie come to mind. But these barons are far from the most impressive business figures of their era. That honor goes to a woman by the name of C. J. Walker. Before she controlled her own empire, Walker was born as Sarah Breedlove in 1867. She was the fifth daughter born to two Black slaves on a Louisiana plantation — and the first to be born free in her family. And she vowed that she would squeeze every ounce of potential out of that freedom.

Orphaned at seven years old

America's first self-made millionaire wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth — far from it. In fact, Madam C. J. Walker, known in her earliest years as Sarah, was born the daughter of slaves on a plantation. Obviously, her upbringing was anything but easy. By the time she was seven, her parents Owen and Minerva Breedlove had both died, leaving her an orphan.

Living with Louvenia

Luckily, she had five older siblings to teach her the ways of the world. Her only sister, Louvenia, helped raise Sarah alongside her own family. They moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where Sarah picked cotton and did housework. But Sarah didn't look back on this part of her childhood with fondness. During this time, she hated living with her brother-in-law.

Escaping her brother-in-law

Her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell, never treated Sarah with respect the way she deserved. In fact, she claimed that he was physically abusive. So when she was only 14, Sarah married Moses McWilliams as a way of escaping Jesse Powell. They had one child together, Lelia, who later changed her name to A'Lelia Walker. When Moses died in 1887, Sarah sought a new start in St. Louis with her brothers.

Working too hard for too little

Sarah always knew that getting an education was her best path to success, so she got to work earning just enough money to send herself and Leila to school. Taking home just $1.50 a day by doing people's laundry, Sarah slowly but surely worked her way through school. A few years into this routine, Sarah began losing her hair. She had a scalp condition and had few options for haircare products. That gave her an idea.