Annie Turnbo Malone: A Generous Entrepreneur
You have heard of Oprah Winfrey? Sure, who hasn't? How about Madam C.J. Walker? No brainer. I can see heads nodding up and down all over the place.
How about Annie Malone? Blank stares. Never heard of her...
Yet, before Madam Walker, Mary McCloud Bethune, Oprah Winfrey or Cathy Hughes there was Annie Turnbo Malone (aka Annie Minerva Turnbo Pope Malone and Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone), a remarkable woman who made her mark during the early 20th century.
Malone is recorded as the U.S.’s first black female millionaire based on reports of $14 million in assets held in 1920 from her beauty and cosmetic enterprises, headquartered in St. Louis and Chicago.
Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone (August 9, 1869—May 10, 1957) was an African-American businesswoman, educator, inventor and philanthropist. Annie was two years younger than Madam C. J. Walker. She had launched her hair care business four years before Madam C. J. Walker.
In the first three decades of the 20th century, she founded and developed a large and prominent commercial and educational enterprise centered around cosmetics for African-American women.
Annie was born in Metropolis, Illinois. She was the tenth of eleven children born to Robert Turnbo, a poor farmer, and Isabella Cook Turnbo. Because her parents died when she was young, Annie was raised by her older sister in nearby Peoria, Illinois. She was a sickly child and missed a lot of school which resulted her in having to withdraw before completing high school.
While she was coming of age, the popular style among Black women was that of a “straight hair” look. Black women were starting to turn their backs on the braided cornrow styles they’d associated with the fields of slavery and began to embrace a look which, for them meant, freedom and progression toward equality in America.
While in Peoria, Malone took an early interest in hair textures. In the 1890s -- being a lover of styling hair -- Annie began to envision a way of straightening hair without having to use the methods of old which included using soap, goose fat, heavy oils, butter and bacon grease or the carding combs of sheep. She’d also witnessed method of hair straightening which employed lye sometimes mixed with potatoes, but was turned off by the procedure because it often resulted in damaged scalps and broken hair follicles.
Coupled with the influence of her aunt who was an herbal doctor and her knowledge of Chemistry, Annie Turnbo developed a chemical which could be used to straighten hair without causing damage to the hair or scalp. By the time she was in her late 20′s, Turnbo had developed a straightening solution which would grant her entry into the annuals of hair care history.
By the beginning of the 1900s, Annie Malone began to revolutionize hair care methods for all African Americans. Armed with this revolutionary formula and a product she called “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower,” Annie moved to St. Louis in 1902. She hired some assistants and began selling her products door-to-door. Word of her products and teaching method spread like wild fire and soon her products and her “Poro Method” of styling hair were a success.
Malone called it Poro, a West African secret society located throughout Liberia and Sierra Leone. There also some elements of the term that indicate beauty. She and her assistants sold her unique brand of hair care products door to door.
By 1902, Malone's business growth led her to St. Louis, Missouri, which at the time held the fourth largest population of African Americans. In St. Louis she copyrighted her Poro brand beauty products. In 1914, in a St. Louis wedding, Malone married the school principal Aaron Eugene Malone.
By 1917, as United States entered World War I, Annie Malone had become so successful that she founded and opened Poro College in St. Louis.
It was the first educational institution in the United States dedicated to the study and teaching of black cosmetology. The school reportedly graduated about 75,000 agents world-wide, including the Caribbean.
The school employed nearly 200 people. Its curriculum included instructions to train students on personal style to present themselves at work -- walking, talking and style of dress designed to maintain a solid public persona. The Poro College building was later purchased by St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church and demolished in 1965 to construct The James House.
The Black Philanthropist
From 1919 to 1943, Malone served as board president of the St. Louis Colored Orphan's Home. The Philadelphia Tribune reported that in 1923 Annie Malone paid the highest income tax of any African American in the country. She had donated the first $10,000 to build the orphanage's new building in 1919 (below).
During the 1920s, Malone's philanthropy included financing the education of two full-time students in every historically black college and university in the country. Her $25,000 donation to Howard University was among the largest gifts the university had received by a private donor of African descent.
By the 1920s, Annie Malone had become a multi-millionaire; she continued to share her great wealth. She donated her money to, and served as president of, the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home. With her help, in 1922 it bought a facility at 2612 Annie Malone Drive (formally Goode Ave.) It continues to serve from the historic Ville neighborhood. Upgraded and expanded, the facility was renamed in her honor as the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center.
In 1930 and entering her 60s, Malone moved her headquarters and entire operation to Chicago. She suffered financially from a devastating divorce (her second) and, soon thereafter, by two civil lawsuits, all during the Great Depression. The lawsuits (for liability to an employee and a St. Louis newspaper) partially crippled her ability to conduct business.
In 1943, during the middle of World War II, she was served a lien by the Internal Revenue Service. After fighting the lawsuits for eight years, she lost Poro to the government and other creditors, who took control of her business -- selling off most of the holdings.
On May 10, 1957, Annie Turnbo Malone (87 years of age) was treated for a stroke at Provident Hospital in Chicago where she died. At the time of her death Poro beauty colleges were in operation in more than thirty U.S. cities.
HER LEGACY STILL LIVES ON: St. Louis honors her memory with the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center whose mission is "is to improve the quality of life for children, families, elderly and the community by providing social services, educational programs, advocacy and entrepreneurship."