Questioning the Story:
Was Madam C.J. Walker the daughter of slaves?
Yes. Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in the vicinity of Delta, Louisiana, she was one of Owen and Minerva Breedlove's six children and the first to be born into freedom after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Self Made true story reveals that Sarah's parents and her older siblings had been owned by Robert W. Burney on his plantation in Madison Parish, Louisiana. Her father had been a farm laborer and her mother a laundress. Her mother died in 1872 when Sarah was just four years old, most likely from cholera. Her father passed away roughly one year later. To learn more about Sarah's childhood, read her great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles' biography On Her Own Ground, which provided the basis for the Netflix series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.
Sarah Breedlove's great-great-granddaughter's book On Her Own Ground
was the basis for the Netflix series.
Did Sarah's hair start to fall out?Yes. Like in the Self Made Netflix series, it's what inspired her to create her own hair-care product. According to A'Lelia Bundles' 2001 book, hair loss was a common problem for women of the era. It was the result of a combination of factors, including illness, infrequent washing, scalp disease, high fever, low-protein diets and damaging hair treatments (including the use of lye that was found in soap at the time and was also used to clean clothes). It's true that the real Madam C.J. Walker, then still known as Sarah Breedlove, suffered from severe dandruff and baldness. Part of the reason for her infrequent hair washing was the fact that most Americans at the time did not have indoor plumbing, electricity, or central heating.
Did Sarah Breedlove learn about hair care from her brothers?
Yes. After her first husband, Moses McWilliams, died in 1887, Sarah moved to St. Louis where three of her brothers were living. According to her great-great granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles' biography Self Made (originally titled On Her Own Ground), it was there that she learned about hair care from her three brothers who were barbers.
Madam C.J. Walker (left) after having revived her hair growth. Actress Octavia Spencer (right) in the Netflix limited series. Photo courtesy of A'Lelia Bundles
Did Sarah first work as a saleswoman for hair-care entrepreneur Annie Malone?Yes. Sarah Breedlove met Annie Malone (pictured below) at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Annie, who is renamed Addie Munroe in the series, gave her tips on how to get rid of her bald spots, telling her to wash her hair regularly and use a sulfur-based scalp treatment. She ended up becoming a commission agent for Malone, selling Malone's Wonderful Hair Grower, in addition to other products that were part of the Poro Company, owned by Malone.
Sarah had worked as a sales representative for hair-care entrepreneur Annie Malone (left), who she met in 1904. Malone is renamed Addie Munroe in the Netflix series and portrayed by Carmen Ejogo (right).
What were the ingredients in Sarah Breedlove's first hair-care product?
According to the Netflix Self Made true story, in order to combat hair loss and promote a healthy scalp, Sarah Breedlove, who became known as Madam C.J. Walker, concocted a hair grower similar to that of Annie Malone's, her former employer. It contained a mixture of beeswax, coconut oil, sulfur, copper sulfate, and violet extract perfume to cover the odor of the sulfur. She started by selling her treatment door to door when she was living in Denver, Colorado.
Madam C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower. Images via the Smithsonian
Did Annie Malone accuse Sarah Breedlove of stealing her formula?Yes. Annie Malone indeed accused her former employee of stealing her formula. While it's true that Sarah came up with a slightly tweaked version of Malone's sulfur recipe, the combination of petroleum jelly and sulfur had been in use at the time for approximately a hundred years. -Collectors Weekly
Did Sarah marry a newspaper advertising salesman named C.J. Walker?
Yes. Sarah married Charles Joseph Walker in January 1906. They had met while Sarah was working as a laundress in St. Louis, washing clothes in the homes of wealthy Whites and earning very little money. Charles is portrayed by Blair Underwood in the Netflix limited series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. The marriage lasted six years. During that time, Sarah Breedlove became known as Madam C.J. Walker. Like in the Netflix series, Charles worked on the business with her, including helping her to put ads in Black newspapers. They divorced in 1912.
This ad for Madam C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower appeared in newspapers in 1915.
Why did Sarah Breedlove change her name?
Sarah changed her name to "Madam C.J. Walker" at the urging of her husband at the time, Charles Joseph (C.J.) Walker. He felt the name was more recognizable. It also benefitted him in that it connected his name to her products.
How many times had the real Madam C.J. Walker been married?Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, had been married a total of three times. Her first marriage was to Moses McWilliams in 1882 when she was just 14. According to A'Lelia Bundles' book On Her Own Ground (republished as Self Made) on which the Netflix series is based, she agreed to the marriage in order to escape her abusive brother-in-law, Jesse Powell. The couple had one child, a daughter named Lelia, born on June 6, 1885. The marriage ended in 1887 when Moses died. Sarah was twenty at the time and Lelia two. It was then that she moved to St. Louis where three of her brothers lived. In 1894, she married her second husband, John Davis, but she left him around 1903, prior to her business taking off. As stated in the previous question, she married her third husband, Charles Joseph (C.J.) Walker, in 1906.
How big did Madam C.J. Walker's business become?
Like in the Netflix series, the Self Made true story confirms that her business expanded well beyond her miracle hair grower. She released a variety of other products, including a shampoo. She established a factory in Indianapolis, a beauty school, and a salon. She expanded throughout much of the United States, and after her business flourished, she sold her products in Central America and the Caribbean. She employed a plethora of women, training them as sales representatives and hairstylists.
The Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company plant in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1911.
Was Madam C.J. Walker America's first self-made female millionaire?This is what the Netflix series asserts, but technically, it may be incorrect. According to her great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles' book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, her estate was estimated to be worth between $600,000 and $700,000 at the time of her death. The New York Times had confirmed this in her obituary, stating, "she said herself two years ago [in 1917] that she was not yet a millionaire, but hoped to be some time."
The decision to label her a millionaire in the Netflix series likely stems in part from the fact that she was eulogized as America's first female self-made millionaire. The Guinness Book of Records also cites her as the first woman to become a millionaire by way of her own achievements, a valuation that seems to be technically incorrect. Still, not only did she live like a millionaire, it's worth noting that in terms of today's dollars, $600,000 is about $9 million. This adjustment for inflation is the reason some have placed her net worth as high as $10 million. Near the end of her life, Walker had moved into the lavish 34-room, 20,000-square-foot Italianate-style mansion Villa Lewaro, which she had hired architect Vertner Tandy to design. To learn more about her net worth, watch our video Madam C.J. Walker's Net Worth Explained.
The real Madam C.J. Walker (left) and Octavia Spencer (right) in the Netflix Self Made
Did Madam C.J. Walker's daughter really become one of her company's executives?Yes. Her daughter Lelia, who took the name A'Lelia Walker during her mother's marriage to Charles Joseph Walker, was college-educated, having attended Knoxville College in Tennessee. She became a part of her mother's business following her graduation. She later became president of her mother's company in 1919, a position she held until her death in 1931. She was born "Lelia" and is portrayed by Tiffany Haddish in the Netflix series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.
Was A'Lelia Walker a lesbian?
Not likely. Self Made depicts Madam C.J. Walker's daughter A'Lelia in a relationship with a photographer named Esther. There was no real-life Esther. "What is portrayed in the series is certainly not something that really happened," says her great-granddaughter and namesake A'Lelia Bundles. "And it certainly wasn't a source of conflict with [her] mother." The series is certain about A'Lelia's sexuality, but the real-life details of her dating history are mostly unknown. We do know that she had three failed marriages. Bundles says that she did find evidence that A'Lelia may have been in a relationship with a woman after her third marriage ended, but she was never known to identify as bisexual or lesbian. Bundles described the woman as "a person who was a longtime friend of hers." What we do know for sure is that A'Lelia was supportive of the LGBTQ+ community. She had queer friends and hosted parties that they attended. -OprahMag.com
Actress Tiffany Haddish and the real A'Lelia Walker
Are Madam C.J. Walker's beauty products still being sold today?Not exactly. The Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company closed its doors in July 1981. However, beginning in March 2016, her name began appearing on a new line launched by Sundial Brands, Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture, which was being sold at Sephora and still is as of the posting of this article.