Walker was born Sarah Breedlove and orphaned in 1874 when both her parents died of yellow fever. She was then raised for several years by her older brother and sister, but married for the first time when she was 14.
By the age of 20 she was a widow (Moses McWilliams was a victim of a race riot) with a baby daughter, and soon moved to St. Louis, where she worked as a laundress and attended night school.
Some time between 1900 and 1905 she invented the hair-straightening treatment which was to make her the first self-made African-American millionairess. By 1911 she was grossing over $100,000 a year from a line of beauty products for African-American women, sold mainly by agents working door-to-door, but she also had beauty parlors and was investing in property and manufacturing the products.
Her friends included Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod-Bethune. She was a generous benefactor of African-American charities, especially educational institutions, and campaigned against Jim Crow laws and other forms of racial discrimination.
Her daughter, A'Lelia, was an adoptive mother, to Mae Walker Perry, who was president of her grandmother's company from 1931 (when her mother died) to her own death in 1945.
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