If you haven’t heard of Annie Turnbo Malone before today, you aren’t alone. When we found out about her, we were amazed that despite her amazing achievements, she isn’t a household name. So, who is Annie Turnbo Malone?
Annie Turnbo Malone
Annie Turnbo Malone (August 9, 1869—May 10, 1957) is recorded as one of the U.S.’s first Black female millionaires based on reports of $14 million in assets held in 1920 from her beauty and cosmetic enterprises, headquartered in St. Louis and Chicago.
While Annie was growing up, the popular style among Black women was the “straight hair” look. Black women were moving from the braided cornrow styles they’d associated with the fields of slavery and began to embrace a look which, for them signified freedom and progression toward equality in America. The beauty industry at the time, had critics who were concerned that the promotion and glamorization of hair-straighteners (and, worse, skin-bleaching creams) would lead to the internalization of white concepts of beauty. This is obviously still an issue to this day. (Think Lil’ Kim)
Annie was mindful that such products had a negative perception attached to them. Perhaps this is why she trademarked her beauty products under the name “Poro” (a West African word for an organization dedicated to enhancing the body spiritually and physically.) There also some elements of the term that indicate beauty.
Annie began to revolutionize hair care methods for all African Americans in the early 1900’s. In 1902, she moved to St. Louis, hired some assistants and began selling her products door-to-door.
One of her protégés was Sarah Breedlove who would later be known as Madam C.J. Walker. Walker actually worked as a “Poro Agent” for Annie for about one year. Walker is often credited as the originator of the Black beauty and cosmetics business and the direct distribution and sales agent system that Malone developed.
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.
By 1926, the college employed 175 people and franchised outlets in North and South America, Africa, and the Philippines employing some 75,000 women. Malone had become a wealthy woman.
Despite her wealth, Malone lived conservatively and gave away much of her fortune to help other African Americans. She is one of America’s first major Black philanthropists.
She contributed thousands of dollars to educational programs, universities, to the YMCA, and to nearly every Black orphanage in the country. Her $25,000 donation to Howard University was among the largest gifts received by a private donor of African descent. She also served as board president of the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home from 1919 to 1943.
Malone died in Chicago on May 10, 1957. By the time of her death, she had lost her national visibility and most of her money to lawsuits and tax debts. Having no children, her estate, valued at $100,000, was left to her nieces and nephews.