Over the past month or so, we have all taken on the responsibility of social distancing: sequestering ourselves from family and friends, and limiting our outings—including to the salon and barbershop.
Before the business of hair care developed at the turn of the 20th century, the styling and upkeep of African American hair was a domestic affair. It was a time with family and friends, and bonding with people who loved and cared about you.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) wants to share with you some of the fascinating history behind the African American hair care and beauty industry.
Over a century ago, Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C.J. Walker were pioneering innovators and entrepreneurs in the African American beauty industry, as well as philanthropists. Each developed haircare and beauty products, created beauty schools, and launched highly successful businesses that employed hundreds of African Americans, mainly women.
Who Was Annie Turnbo Malone?Annie Turnbo Malone was a self-made millionaire and Walker’s mentor. Malone established Poro College where she trained “Poro agents” to sell hair preparations and custom products. Founded as a cosmetics school and community center, the college was named after the Poro society, a secret organization in West Africa that exemplified physicality and spirituality. Over the company’s life span, tens of thousands of women and men sold Poro products around the world. NMAAHC is home to numerous Poro artifacts, including photos, a souvenir booklet from the company, instruction manuals, and formulas.
Who Was Madam C.J. Walker?Madam C.J. Walker, who began her hair care career as a Poro agent, established her own line of hair care and beauty products, which helped her to become a millionaire. Her businesses included a distinct line of products, a major factory in Indianapolis, the beauty school Lelia College, and a community center.
Perhaps the most enduring physical monument to Walker’s legacy is Villa Lewaro, a stunning mansion she constructed 30 miles north of New York City in a community that included tycoons Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Sadly, Walker only lived there for a year before she died in 1919. Villa Lewaro, however, remained a hub for pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson, and survives to this day as a monument to her financial success.
The Museum is the conservator of over a dozen artifacts from Madam C.J. Walker’s life and work, thanks to the donation of historical objects by NMAAHC Charter Members—including Dawn Spears and Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles.
Lifting as We Climb
Both Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C.J. Walker were born to formerly enslaved parents shortly after the Civil War. Each had faith in the ability of African Americans to find power through perseverance, and both became great philanthropists who shared their hard-won financial resources and professional talents.
Annie Turnbo Malone donated large sums of her newfound fortune around St. Louis and to institutions such as Howard University. Unfortunately, Malone and the Poro Company later fell upon severe financial hardship, and the company was unable to recapture the full scope of its earlier success.
Madam C.J. Walker was a tireless advocate for racial and gender equality at a time when all could not share in America’s social and economic boom. She served on the organizing committee for the NAACP’s 1917 Silent Protest Parade, was elected vice president at large of the National Equal Rights League, and made Villa Lewaro a center for activism and the arts.
Take Your Exploration to the Next Level!You can view a tin for Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower in 3D right now. NMAAHC has several artifacts available online in 3D for you to explore up close, in astonishing detail, along with dozens more from other Smithsonian museums.
Nerd Out!Did you know that you can read historical documents from Madam C.J. Walker Schools of Beauty Culture and Poro College from your computer at home? NMAAHC has digitized books, including individual pages of the Text Book of the Madam C.J. Walker Schools of Beauty Culture, which volunteers have transcribed from home. Read the same pages that men and women did at the height of Malone and Walker’s success!
Malone and Walker are featured in the Museum exhibition Making a Way Out of No Way, which explores themes of agency, creativity, and resilience through personal stories of African Americans who challenged racial oppression and discrimination and created ways out of “no way.”
The Museum is indebted to all of our Members who have brought these remarkable stories of perseverance and ingenuity to light! NMAAHC is proud to share these inspiring stories.
Thank you for continuing to support the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Your dedication makes it possible for us to share these amazing online resources with the world! You can ensure the future success of the Museum by making a tax-deductible gift today.
We look forward to welcoming you back to the Museum. In the meantime, please be safe—and stay tuned for more stories from our amazing collections!
Images, top to bottom: Photograph of Madam C.J. Walker by Addison N. Scurlock, ca. 1912; Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives; 2013.153.8. Photograph of Annie Malone from a souvenir booklet about Poro College Company, 1920-27; Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; 2011.170.18. An example of “Poro Preparations” from a souvenir booklet about Poro College Company, 1920-27; Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; 2011.170.18. Authorized agent sign, ca. 1930; Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives; 2013.153.6. Photograph of a convention of Madam C.J. Walker agents at Villa Lewaro, 1924; Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives; 2013.153.10. Wonderful Hair Grower tin, 1910s-20s; Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; 2011.159.6. Page spread from a souvenir booklet about Poro College Company, 1920-27; Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; 2011.170.18.
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