The name Madam CJ Walker is synonymous with Black hair care and Black wealth. Walker built a beauty empire and amassed a fortune in the early 20th century at a time when many African Americans were just one generation (or at the most, two) out of slavery. There is no doubt that Walker was self-made, but rarely remembered is the Black woman who not only deeply inspired Walker’s entrepreneurial spirt, but broke ground in the business where she eventually found ultimate prestige and influence.
Like Walker, Annie Turnbo Malone also made her mark in the beauty industry. According to the official website about her life, she earned $14 million in 1920. Though two years younger than Walker, Malone started her Poro hair care brand four years before Walker started her business. In fact, Walker was Malone’s employee, selling the Poro brand door-to-door. It was under Malone’s tutelage that Walker began to perfect her own successful marketing strategies.
Malone, born in 1869 in Illinois and raised by her older sister after her parents died, became interested in hair styling at a young age. Her fascination combined with a curiosity about chemistry and an aunt with an herbal medicine background, led Malone to create her own hair care products. She gave the staple product the modest name, “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower.”
St. Louis, Missouri became the Poro brand’s homebase, not surprising since the city’s large African American population made it ripe for sales. Malaone wanted to connect her product, employees and clients to their African roots and so named her brand after a West African secret society of men who were dedicated to spiritual and physical wellness. By 1918, she had trademarked Poro, gotten married and established Poro College, the nation’s first beauty school dedicated to Black hair care.
Most Poro graduates were women, but in 1952, there was one male graduate who had not yet become a famous rock and roller. Musician Chuck Berry followed in his sisters’ footsteps by completing cosmetology training, bringing new found respect for his straightened coif, a look he apparently was capable of achieving on his own.
Malone’s gift of $25,000 to Howard University in the 1920s was at the time, the largest amount the institution had received from a Black private donor. But, by the end of the decade, things started to take a down turn. Malone’s marriage was on its last legs. Her husband filed for divorce in 1927, requesting half of the Poro business. She settled with him for $200,000 and moved Poro’s headquarters to Chicago. The 1929 the faltering stock market, lawsuits and back taxes all had a hugely negative impact on her empire. She persevered nonetheless and for many years, continued to conduct business and contribute to her favorite philanthropic endeavors. In fact, an orphanage she generously donated to was renamed the Annie Malone Children and Family Services Center in 1946. She also helped found the St. Louis Colored YWCA, was a member of the National Negro Business League and became an honorary member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.
In 1951, back taxes got the better of her. The government seized control of Poro and much of her property. After years of successfully managing a multimillion dollar empire, Malone’s string of bad luck and Walker’s subsequent greater name recognition, overshadowed her numerous business and philanthropic achievements. Malone died from a stroke at the age of 87. Her estate, estimated at the time of her death to be valued at $100,000, was left to her nieces and nephews.
Although her story will forever be intermingled with that of Walker’s, Malone set the mold for the modern day, independently wealthy Black woman. Her methods in developing a new hair care system and adding a school to teach her techniques were unprecedented. Her business acumen was exceptional. Most of all, Malone’s desire to provide assistance, reward others and share large sums of her incredible wealth makes her an innovative, philanthropic American pioneer. She deserves to have her own story, along with its multitude of triumphs and despairs, cemented in the history books forever.