as a child, I’d always read, heard and believed that Madame C.J. Walker was the originator and inventor of black hair care products. I accepted this as fact until I wondered across a display while visiting the DuSable Museum several years ago and found myself completely intrigued by the story of Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone.
an entrepreneur and philanthropist who became a millionaire by developing and marketing hair products for black women, Malone used her wealth to promote the advancement of African Americans and donated most of her money to charity.
born on August 9, 1869 in Metropolis, Illinois – Annie Minerva Turbo was the tenth of eleven children born to Robert and Isabella Turnbo. she was very young when her parents died and was sent to live with her older sister in Peoria, IL. due to childhood illnesses, Annie did not complete high school despite her great love of chemistry.
during the late 19th century, ‘colored’ women used soap, goose fat, and other methods to straighten their hair. chemical straighteners were also used but often damaged the scalp and hair follicles. by the turn of the century, Annie developed a chemical product that straightened hair without causing damage. she went on to create many other hair care treatments such as the first ever patented hot comb and her popular ‘Wonderful Hair Grower’.
by 1902, Annie and three assistants sold her unique brand of hair products door to door, traveling to black churches and community centers, providing free hair and scalp treatments. she advertised in colored-only newspapers and held local press conferences while traveling throughout the South amidst racial discrimination and violence. throughout her travels, Annie always hired and trained women to serve as local sales agents and they in turn, would recruit others. by 1910, her distribution expanded nationally.
due to a former employee’s success in marketing a similar hair straightening product, Annie decided to trademark her line, naming it Poro, a West African word meaning physical and spiritual growth.
by 1917, the United States had entered WWI and Annie was riding such a wave of success that she founded and opened Poro College in St. Louis. Poro College was the first ever educational institution in the United States dedicated to the study and teaching of black cosmetology.
Poro College was a complex that included her business’s office, manufacturing operation, and training center as well as facilities for civic, religious, and social functions. 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. The complex, which was valued at more than $1 million, included classrooms, barber shops, laboratories, an auditorium, dining facilities, a theater, gymnasium, chapel, and a roof garden. Many local and national organizations, including the National Negro Business League, were housed in the facility or used it for business 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. During the early 20th century, race improvement and positive self-image were seen as a way to increase social mobility. By teaching deportment, Malone believed she was helping African American women improve their standing in the community.
by 1926, Annie employed almost 200 people. she assisted with opening franchised locations in North and South America, Africa, and the Philippines which employed 75,000 women. Annie was a multi-millionaire, with an estimated net worth of $14 million by the late 1920′s. she often donated money to charities and black colleges such as Howard University and Tuskegee Institute, while serving as president of the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home. In 1946, the facility was renamed in her honor as the Annie Malone Children and Family Center, and still serves as a source of community support in the historic Ville neighborhood.
despite Annie’s generosity and community status, she trusted the day-to-day operations of her business to managers, including her second husband, Aaron Malone. trust that lead to the gradual decline of her business and financial standing.
Annie and Aaron Malone fought over control of the Poro business for several years. Annie managed to keep the power struggle under wraps until Aaron filed for divorce in 1927, demanding 50% business ownership, claiming his contacts greatly added to its success. during their highly publicized divorce, he courted and won the backing of black leaders and politicians. Annie won the favor of black women, charitable institutions, the press and the support of Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Association of Colored Women. All of this support helped Annie to prevail, allowing her to win the suit and keep her business for a $200,000 settlement.
as Annie approached her 60′s in the 1930′s, she relocated her headquarters to Chicago, where its location became known as the Poro block.
again she became the target of lawsuits, including a former employee claiming credit for her success. when the suit settled in 1937, she was forced to sell her St. Louis property. later, during WWII, she was served a lien by the IRS for unpaid real estate and excise taxes. after several court battles with the government, they eventually won control of Poro and most of the property was sold to cover back taxes.
Annie’s business failure ultimately tarnished her reputation and image. her former employee, Madame C.J. Walker, continues to overshadow Malone as Walker’s success story is more widely known. Walker is often credited as the originator of the black beauty and cosmetics business and the direct distribution and sales agent system developed by Malone.
Annie Turnbo Malone died of a stroke on May 10, 1957. She was 87 and living in Chicago at the time of her death.
Annie may be gone but not forgotten as her incredible success story remains.