Madame C. J. Walker


African-Americans post Civil War


Millionaire philanthropists




Neva M. Herr





December 23, 1867, two years after the Civil War had freed her parents, Owen and Minverva Breedlove, Sarah was born on a Louisiana plantation. From around the age of four or five, Sarah began going out to the fields with her parents, her older brother Alex, and her sister Louvenia. Minerva and her daughters earned a few extra pennies doing the laundry for the white customers. Her parents knew that their children needed an education but could not spare the time or money to send any of them away.

Tragedy struck at the age of seven when a yellow fever epidemic took the lives of her parents. Trying to support the family after the farm failed, Alex left for Vicksburg. Meanwhile his sisters survived by taking in laundry. When the yellow fever struck again drying up what little money they made, the sisters followed their brother. Sarah lived with her sister and her new brother-in-law until she married Moses McWilliams at the age of fourteen. Then she and her husband moved into their own home.

At the age of 17 she gave birth to her daughter, A'Lelia. Then at the age of 20 she was widowed when Moses died. Wanting a better life for her daughter, Sarah made a decision to go to St. Louis where there was more business for a laundress. With the money she made there, she sent A'Lelia to get the education Sarah never received. After working for 18 years, Sarah saw her daughter graduate from high school and go to Knoxville College. This accomplished her first goal in life.

In 1904 when the World's Fair came to St. Louis, Sarah was exposed to many new ideas and people. The person who made the biggest impression on her life was Mrs. Booker T. Washington. Seeing a well groomed, literate, and worldly African-American woman, Sarah decided that with her daughter in school she could begin to better her own life.

Sarah was 37 years old and beginning to loose her hair to unknown causes. She claims that at this point her prayers to God to help her save her hair were answered. She dreamed of a man who came and told her the ingredients needed for the mixture to grow back her hair. She made some up in her bathtub, tried it out on herself and discovered it worked. She soon was selling to her friends and neighbors. Unfortunately there was another company in St. Louis that sold similar products. With only $1.50 in her pockets, she moved to Denver, Colorado to begin selling her products around the nation. She originally developed three hair care products: Wonderful Hair Grower, Glossine, and Vegetable Shampoo. These products, made for African-American women, softened and helped straighten their tight curls into the more popular style of the time.

On January 4, 1906, around the time the products were becoming more popular, she married Charles Joseph Walker. This changed her name to Mrs. C. J. Walker. She gave herself the name Madame to add a touch of class to the name of her products.

As her business expanded, Madame Walker began a cross-country tour to show off her product while hiring and training new sales agents; mostly African-American women. Against her husband's advice she moved the business headquarters to Pittsburgh, which was a thriving industrial city. Joined by her daughter, they opened the Lelia College to train sales agents. Here the agents were taught how to use and demonstrate the product, and the door-to-door sales techniques which Madame Walker was the first to use in a large-scale fashion. The agents were also told about good personal habits and hygienic procedures, practices that preceded the state's cosmetology laws. Her agents were soon easily recognizable in their neatly arranged hair, black skirts, and white shirts.

As business continued to grow, Madame Walker moved again, this time to Indianapolis. By 1911 the company employed over 950 agents who earned around $1,000 a month compared with the $45 a month unskilled white workers earned. Soon after these statistics were released Madame Walker divorced her second husband, however, she kept the name.

With all the money she was earning Madame Walker decided to help others. She donated money to many educational funds to help women, African-Americans, and even to start a school in West Africa. Other donations she made were to the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), and the effort to buy and protect the home of Frederick Douglas. She also spent $250,000 for a new home with many luxurious goods for herself and her daughter.

Faced with discrimination, she fought against it by any means available. Once, when told to pay twice the amount that white customers paid for movie tickets, she sued the theater and built her own as part of her "Walker Building" complex. When President Wilson began stopping reforms that would give African-Americans more freedom, Madame Walker visited the White House in 1917 to protest the lynching of African-Americans.

By 1918 Madame Walker had been declared the first African-American women to become a millionaire when her company reported yearly sales of $250,000 and was employing nearly 2,000 workers.

At the age of 51, Madame Walker was warned to slow her work pace due to hypertension and other health problems. Unwilling to slow down she became ill and died on May 25, 1919. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote for her obituary "It is given to few persons to transform a people in a generation. Yet this was done by the late Madam C. J. Walker." (Brown, ONLINE, 1996). From her poor background and hardship ridden early life, and while trying to better her daughter's and then her own life, Sarah Breedlove had become a millionaire and an inspiration to people all around the world.



Brown, M. C. (1996). Madam C. J. Walker. Available:

Burke, B. and Cain, J. (1994). Heroes: Challenging. Huntington Beach, Ca: Teacher Created Material, Inc.

Vare, E. A. and Ptacek, G. (1993). Women Inventors and Their Discoveries. Minneapolis: The Oliver Press, Inc.

"Walker, Sarah Breedlove" (1994). The Grolier Library of North American Biographies: Entrepreneurs and Inventors. Grolier Educational Corporation.





TIME ALLOTMENT: Approximately six class periods plus an extra week for the short term goal to be met.


Maps of the United States (Louisiana)

Case study (see appendix)

Guest speakers (parents and/or community leaders)

Questions about Madame C. J. Walker (see appendix)

Goal completion hand-out (see appendix)



1. VALUES WHIP/GROUP DISCUSSION. Ask the students to think about what they want to be when they grow up. Then ask each student to share his/her ideas. Allow students to pass if desired. After everyone has been asked return to those who passed and asked them again.

2. MINI-LECTURE. Talk about how they think they will achieve this goal or if they think they may change their mind. Then talk about Madame C. J. Walker, mention how she started as a laundry person and ended up a millionaire, and discuss the goals she set in life and how she achieved them. Mention a few of the problems she had as well as the successes before and after she became famous. Be sure to locate the different places she lived as you tell the story of her life.

3. NUMBERED HEADS. Split the class into groups of five students. Once they are in their groups have them number off 1-5. Give each group enough copies of the questions (see appendix), for each member to have one. Each team will be responsible for making sure everyone in the group can answer all the questions. Call out a number from 1-5 and a number of a question. The first number is which member of the group will answer the question, the second which question they will answer. The students will answer orally if called upon by the teacher, even if all they say is that someone already said their answer. Go through and make sure each person has a chance to answer one question, then answer the unused questions in an open forum.

4. GUEST SPEAKER. Invite family members and community leaders in to discuss goals they have set for themselves, how they reached them, and any problems they had to overcome. Afterwards have the students write a reflection paper on things they found interesting about goals people set, how they reached them, obstacles they faced, and how they overcame the obstacles.

5. THINK-PAIR-SHARE. Have students individually think of a time they planned out how to do something and then followed through. Remind them of Madame Walker's goals and how she followed through with them. Example of answers if they get stuck are vacations, what to do during a ball game, building something, getting money to get something special, or a job they did. Then have the students share with a partner or two how they planned it out and why. Then as a large group allow students to share what, why, and how they did it and how it came out.

6. ROLE PLAYING. Remind students that Madame Walker did not achieve her goals without some problems interfering or disrupting her goal. In teams students are given a scenario (see appendix) of someone trying to reach a goal, but a problem has appeared. As a team the students must figure out a solution then act out the entire scene including the solution. Afterwards the rest of the class can ask why they chose that solution as opposed to the other answers.

7. VALUES WHIP. Madame Walker had grown up with little money. She spent a lot of her money for different causes, but she also lived well with her daughter. Pose the following question to the students: "If you had a million dollars what would you do with it?" Allow a few minutes to think about it, then starting with the teacher have each student tell their answers or pass. After all have had a chance to respond ask those who passed if they would like to speak, though they don't have to speak. Then open the floor to allow students to question each other about their choices, however, this does not mean critisizing the choise by calling it "dumb". Be ready for long discussion of values and ethic that may come up. Once all have spoken the session can end.

8. BRAINSTORMING. In small groups have students think of long term and short term goals they want to set. Inform them that they will be writing out both goals and how they plan to accomplish the goals. The short term goal will be for 7 days. These will be checked upon periodically during the week. The long term goals can be any length of time as these will not be checked for completion, however, they will be looked at for realistic ideas (no superhero powers). Then have the students write out what they have decided for personal long and short term goals. If something becomes a problem for the student in keeping their short term goal help them set a new one or be ready to extend the time period. After they are finished they need to fill out the hand-out in the appendix. Part of the planning is what the students will do to celebrate the achievement of their goal.

9. JOURNAL. Have students start keeping a daily log about how their short term goal is coming. Include difficulties and decisions made, thoughts, feelings, why they chose this goal, and what they plan as their reward.



1. Answering the question during the whip discussion group.

2. The quality of the answers given by the group and the quality of the individuals answer.

3. The paper the students wrote about the guest speaker(s).

4. Participating and keeping on track during the pair section of Think-Pair-Share.

5. Participation in thinking about the problem, acting out the solution, and answering the questions afterward.

6. Final paper detailing the short and long term goal, the means by which they think to attain it, any obstacle they foresee, and if they goals are possible to attain.

7. Attain their short term goal and filling out the hand-out.

8. Keeping a daily journal of what they are doing to achieve the short term goal, problems, solutions, and their feelings about what's happening.



SERVICE PROJECTS. Have the students look at the community around them and find a problem they think they could solve working together as a class. Have them plan out what they are going to do. If students work on different parts of the project in groups, have weekly meetings (or daily) to discuss problems and ways they could solve them. The student can keep journals of what they did and how it turned out.

GROUP SOLUTIONS. Separate students into groups of 3-5 students. Beforehand create a packet relevant to where the school is. The packet will contain goals for each person, but each goal has problems that relate to the others. (i.e. Someone wants to put up a shopping mall where the only park in the area is. The community wants a community center and the environmentalists want to protect the park.) The individuals must decide what they want to do and then discuss it with the group to be sure that all the plans will work together. They can then present their ideas to the class or write up a report.

TRIP PLANNING. Have the students decide individually or in small groups a place on earth they would like to visit. Have them plan out how they would get there, what they would do, lodging, transportation, and money. Then have a travel agent bring in some brochures, prices and ideas to help the planning.

INVENTION FAIR. Have the students individually or in groups of two or three come up with an invention and build it. Then have them run a simulation advertising campaign to see if people would buy their invention.







1. What did Madame Walker do before she became a millionaire?


2. Was education important to Madame Walker? How do you know?


3. Seeing Mrs. Booker T. Washington inspired Madame Walker. What was it that she was inspired to do and why was she inspired?


4. What were some of the decisions that Madame Walker made during her life that changed her life?


5. What were some of the ideas and procedures that Madame Walker implemented in her company that were ahead of the times.


6. What did Madame Walker do with her money?




Sam is a sixth grader who plays basketball. He has been having trouble staying up with his homework because of his basketball practices and games. His parents have threatened to not let him play anymore if his grades don't come up. Sam has just taken a test that he doesn't think he did well on. He has a book report tomorrow and a game this weekend. If he didn't pass the test the report is the only grade that will allow him to play. After school, an hour is spent in distributing the newspaper. He has time before dinner with his family to work on homework. At 6:00 PM he has basketball practice for an hour and then the evening is free. He is almost finished with the book and has a computer at home to work on it. However, during school he ran into his friend Dan who had just bought a brand new computer game and asked him over to play. Sam has been waiting to play this game for a long time. Also during school his friends invited him to go hang out before the game at the video arcade where all the "cool" high school basketball player hang out. Sometimes his coach keeps him and the other starting players after an extra half hour to practice important plays if the last game was closer than he likes, and the last game was by one point. After practice Sam takes a shower and is always tired.








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