Walker was born on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. She was the daughter of two sharecroppers named Owen and Minerva Breedlove. They were former slaves and lived on the Burney plantation. Her name at birth was Sarah Breedlove, but was changed when she married. When she was only seven, her mother died. Her father remarried and he then died right before she turned eight. She then was raised by her sister, Louvina. She married at the age of 14 because of her impoverished state to a man named Moses McWilliams. Two years later he was murdered by a lynch mob. Before he was killed they had a daughter, A"Lelia. She and her daughter then moved to St. Louis, Missouri and for eighteen years she supported her and her daughter by means of being a washerwoman.
While in St. Louis in 1905, she got the idea to help cosmetics for black women. Her treatment was designed to treat and heal scalp disease not to straiten hair like many people thought. To straighten hair, she used hot combs which she did not invent like many people have thought or heard. She gave the treatment to some of her friends and it worked for them so she moved to Denver and was going to start a business, but she realized she had no money. She began work as a cook to finance for her business. Then she met a newspaperman by the name of Charles Joseph (C. J.) Walker. He had an uncanny ability to sell things, which is just what she needed. She married him on January 4, 1906 and they started The Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. The marriage ended but she kept the name and him as a sales agent. She transferred her headquarters from Denver to Pittsburgh to Indianapolis, where a plant was constructed and was used as a manufacturing plant, living quarters, and beauty school.
In 1906 she gave the mail order business to her daughter who set up headquarters in Pittsburgh. Madame Walker's company was the employer for around three thousand people.