Doreen St. Félix

1. To Owen and Minerva, Sarah was born. Sarah Breedlove arrived two mornings before Christmas Day, 1867. She was born in a cabin on the Burney plantation just outside of Delta, Louisiana. Owen, Minerva, and the five children that came before Sarah were sharecroppers. Sarah Breedlove was the first in her family to be born a legal American human (the others had attained that status post facto).


2. In 1912, Madame C.J. Walker, soon-to-be woman millionaire, stood up from her seat the National Negro Business League convention and stared down an unwavering Booker T. Washington.


3. Being born into this peculiar and nominally new citizenship meant little material difference to the last child, who still worked alongside her family picking cotton on the Burney plantation. Sarah picked cotton as her mother died, she picked cotton as her father died, and continued to pick cotton as an orphan girl. “I am a woman that came from the cotton fields of the South,” she announced to the convention delegates, mostly male.


4. After her parents’ deaths, Sarah was sent — much of the information about the life of Sarah Breedlove before her life became that of Madame C.J. Walker is recorded in the passive voice — to a cotton plantation in Vicksburg, where her sister Luvinia and her sister’s husband Jesse Powell worked. A man known for his appetite, Powell had miscalculated the amount, types, and degrees of abuse Sarah could take before deciding that she could no longer keep her mouth shut.  She stayed there for seven years.