Although her story is not as well known, Annie Turnbo Malone was the businesswoman and chemist that founded the first line of African-American hair care products and America’s first black millionairess. Her pioneering efforts were in the creation of her hair care products, as well as her modern distribution system that would be emulated by others.
Annie was born in 1869 in Metropolis, Illinois to former slaves Robert and Isabella Cook Turnbo. She was the tenth of eleven children. Because her parents died when she was young, Annie was raised by her older sister in nearby Peoria, Illinois. She was frequently ill and missed a lot of school, which resulted her in having to withdraw before she completed high school. Though she did not graduate, she did discover she was good at chemistry. She also enjoyed fashioning her own and her sisters’ hair, and while noticing the differences in their individual hair textures, she began looking into safer ways of straightening black hair.
During the late 19th century, African American women used soap, goose and bacon fat, and heavy oils to straighten their hair. Some women also used lye mixed with potatoes as a chemical straightener, but this method often damaged the scalp and hair follicles. With the help of an aunt who was trained as an herbal doctor, Turnbo developed a chemical product that straightened African American hair without damage. By 1889, Turnbo had developed her own scalp and hair products that she demonstrated and sold from a buggy throughout Illinois. In time, Turnbo released several new hair care products, including her new “Wonderful Hair Grower” and a patented hot comb onto the market. Annie began by selling her products from door to door, but eventually she opened her first store front.
Recognizing she needed a larger market in which to sell her products, Turnbo moved her business to St. Louis in 1902 and hired and trained 3 assistants. The city’s economy was booming in preparation for the 1904 World’s Fair. As a black woman, she didn’t have access to traditional distribution channels, so Annie and her assistants went door to door giving demonstrations, and traveled to black churches and community centers providing free hair and scalp treatments. She also held press conferences and advertised in black newspapers throughout the midwest and south, hiring women to work as local sales agents wherever she went.
One of Turnbo’s most famous recruits was a woman named Sarah Breedlove, who started using Annie’s products to cure her of her hair loss. Breedlove would go on to fashion her own hair care products, changing her name to Madam C.J. Walker (following her marriage to Charles Walker). The Madam C.J. Walker brand would make Sarah one of the most successful female entrepreneurs of the 20th century. Because her success overshadowed Annie Turnbo Malone, many recognize her as America’s first African-American millionairess.
Because of Walker’s success with what Annie considered an imitation of her product, she trademarked Poro as a new name for her product and merchandising systems in 1906. Poro is a West African word for an organization dedicated to disciplining and enhancing the body spiritually and physically. In 1914, she married Aaron Eugene Malone (her 2nd husband) who became the company’s chief manager and president. The philosophy of the new brand was that by improving their physical appearance, African American women would gain greater self-respect and achieve success in other areas of their lives.
Annie Malone also envisioned Poro as a way to provide African American women with career opportunities and economic independence. In the spirit of community building and social welfare, she built Poro College in 1918, a complex that included her business’s office, manufacturing operation, and training center as well as facilities for civic, religious, and social functions. The training center provided cosmetology and sales training for women interested in joining the Poro agent network. It also taught students how to walk, talk, and behave in social situations.
In addition to being a place of business for Malone, the campus was located in St. Louis’s upper-middle-class black neighborhood and served as a gathering place for the city’s African Americans, who were denied access to other entertainment and hospitality venues. Valued at more than $1 million, the complex also included classrooms, barber shops, laboratories, an auditorium, dining facilities, a theater, gymnasium, chapel, and a roof garden. By 1926, the college employed 175 people, and franchised outlets in three continents and the Philippines that employed approximately 75,000 women.
According to The Philadelphia Tribune in 1923, Annie Malone paid the highest income tax of any African American in the country. In 1924, her income tax payment totaled nearly $40,000. Annie Malone did not live extravagantly; she preferred to live conservatively and gave away much of her fortune to help other African Americans. Malone was one of America’s first major black philanthropists, donating $25,000 to help build the St. Louis Colored YWCA. She also funded the construction of the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home, which is still located in the historic Ville neighborhood as the upgraded and expanded Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center.
Annie Malone became a multimillionaire, with her net worth being approximately $14 million during the 1920s. However, in 1927 her husband (who was the president of the company) filed suit for a divorce demanding half of her business. Aaron Malone claimed that it was his knowledge that was the force behind the success of the business, and Poro College was forced into a court-ordered receivership. With support from her employees and powerful figures such as Mary McLeod Bethune, she was able to negotiate a divorce settlement of $200,000 that left her the sole owner of Poro College. After the divorce Annie moved her business to Chicago’s South Parkway where she bought an entire city block. Unfortunately, continuing financial struggles and the Great Depression forced her to sell her St. Louis property. Poro continued to thrive, although on a much smaller scale. On May 10, 1957 Annie suffered a stroke and died at Chicago’s Provident Hospital. At the time of her death, Annie’s estate was valued at only $100,000 due to the many losses her business faced. Despite this, Poro beauty colleges were in operation in more than thirty U.S. cities.
Though her business suffered hardship in the end. Annie Turnbo Malone provided the template for entrepreneurs such as Madam C. J. Walker, and her efforts helped spur economic growth for African American women during her time. She was a pioneer of innovation during a time when there were few economic opportunities for women of color, and her legacy of entrepreneurship and charitable giving lives on with the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center. The street on which the center is located was renamed Annie Malone Drive in her honor.
More Travelbox History Corner tomorrow!
“Annie Malone.” University of Illinois Historical Archaeology and Public Engagement, Department of Anthropology, n.d. Web. 17 February 2017. http://www.histarch.illinois.edu/Brooklyn/HSOBI/AnnieMalone.htm.
“Annie Turnbo Malone.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, n.d. Web. 16 February 2017. http://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/historians-miscellaneous-biographies/annie-turnbo-malone.
“Annie Turnbo Malone (1869 – 1957).” The State Historical Society of Missouri, Historic Missourians, n.d. Web. 17 February 2017. http://shsmo.org/historicmissourians/name/m/malone/.
Countee, Astrid. “Annie Malone.” The Inquisitive Anthropologist, 2015. Web. 17 February 2017. http://ianthro.com/annie-malone.
Cross, Vanessa. “Annie Turnbo Malone: A Black Philanthropist and Entrepreneur.” Black History Heroes, 2010. Web. 17 February 2017. http://www.blackhistoryheroes.com/2010/10/annie-turnbo.html.
Damani, Seba. “Annie Malone: Madam C.J. Walker’s Mentor.” Seba Damani, 2014. Web. 17 February 2017. http://www.sebadamani.com/blog/annie-malone-madam-cj-walkers-mentor.
“Who Was One of Madam C.J. Walker’s Most Important Role Models?” Freeman Institute, n.d. Web. 17 February 2017. http://www.freemaninstitute.com/poro.htm.