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date: 04 April 2020

Walker, Madam C. J. locked

(23 December 1867–25 May 1919)
  • John N. Ingham


Walker, Madam C. J. (23 December 1867–25 May 1919), businesswoman, was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, the daughter of Minerva (maiden name unknown) and Owen Breedlove, sharecroppers. Her destitute parents struggled mightily against the system of racism and oppression in the post–Civil War years but were defeated by it and died, leaving Sarah an orphan at six years of age. She lived next with her sister, Louvenia, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, but life was not much better there. In 1881, at the age of fourteen, she married Moses “Jeff” McWilliams, having one daughter, Lelia (later to call herself A’Lelia). In 1887 McWilliams was killed, possibly lynched during a race riot. Sarah Breedlove, twenty years old, barely literate, unskilled, and with a two-year-old child, faced a desperate situation. Leaving Mississippi, she headed up the Mississippi River to St. Louis where she became a washerwoman.

Every day hour after hour ...

A version of this article originally appeared in American National Biography.

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