Annie M. Turnbo Pope Malone
Original Founder of the Black Hair Industry
And First Black Female Millionaire
Annie Turnbo Malone (1869-1957) was an African American entrepreneur and philanthropist during the early 20th century. She manufactured a line of beauty products for black women and created a unique distribution system that helped thousands of black women gain self respect and economic independence. However, her contributions to African American culture are often overlooked because her business empire collapsed from mismanagement. One of her students, Madame C.J. Walker, created a similar enterprise and is largely credited with originating the black beauty business, a feat that rightly belongs to Malone.
Born Annie Minerva Turnbo, August 9, 1869, in Metropolis, IL; daughter of Robert (a farmer) and Isabella (Cook) Turnbo; married Mr. Nelson Pope, c. 1903 (marriage ended); married Aaron Malone, c. 1914 (divorced, 1927); died, 1957.
Founder of hair care product line for African Americans; developed business into the Poro System, a network of 75,000 franchised agent-operators who operated salons under Malone’s guidelines using Poro products. Founded Poro College, 1917, in St. Louis, MO, the first school for the training of beauty culture specialists for African American clientele. First Black female millionaire and was also actively involved in numerous philanthropic organizations.
Annie Turnbo Malone was one of the richest African American women in the United States at one time just a generation after slavery had ended in the country. Founder of an extremely successful line of hair-care products, Malone exhibited both a sharp mind for marketing as well as an overly generous cash disbursement policy. As her business grew increasingly prosperous, Malone neglected to keep a tight rein on in-house finances, while at the same time bestowing large sums of money to worthy charitable organizations; such policies eventually spelled the end of her large enterprise. Malone’s dramatic rise in the hair-care field has often been overshadowed by that of one of her former employees, Madame C. J. Walker, but it was Malone, historians assert, who developed the first successful formulas and marketing strategies aimed at straightening African American hair without damaging it.
Born August 9, 1869, on a farm in Metropolis, Illinois, Malone was the tenth of eleven children of Robert and Isabella Turnbo. Unfortunately her parents died at an early age and Annie Minerva was taken in by an older sister in Peoria, Illinois. As with young women, her own hairstyle was a particular preoccupation, but she grew dissatisfied with the methods then in use by African American women of her generation that involved goose fat, soap, or other oils for straightening purposes. Stronger products on the market damaged the hair follicles or scalp in their efforts to straighten naturally kinky hair. Malone formulated and perfected a line of products that was sold in local stores around her home in Lovejoy, Illinois, by 1900. One of her products was called the Wonderful Hair Grower, and it is thought that around this time Malone invented the pressing iron and comb, a hair-straightening device.
In 1902, Malone relocated from Lovejoy to St. Louis, Missouri, in an effort to expand her business opportunities. She successfully conducted door-to-door sales by herself and three assistants; they offered free hair treatments to women on the spot in an effort to sell the products. Malone undertook a sales tour of the South in 1903; records show she also wed around this time, but she and her husband were divorced when he attempted to exert control over her thriving business. She also opened her own salon, and a year later her “Poro” products, as she called them, were being sold throughout the Midwest. The word “poro” is a West African term that denotes an organization whose aim is to discipline and enhance the body in both physical and spiritual form. She copyrighted the name in 1906. Poro’s sales were spurred by Malone’s understanding and use of modern business practices, such as press conferences, advertisements in African American newspapers, and the hiring of women as the most convincing sales staff for her products. One of those agents was Madame C. J. Walker.
Walker learned well from Malone; after working for her around 1905, Walker left to develop her own hair care line and complexion cream. The next year Walker moved to Denver, Colorado, and opened an office there; an eastern division opened the next year with an office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By 1910 Walker had headquartered her operations in Indianapolis and constructed a manufacturing facility. Walker is often erroneously hailed as a pioneer in African American hair care products and straightening processes, though historical data indicates that Malone was indeed the true groundbreaker.
Still, Malone’s enterprise thrived well during the first decades of the twentieth century, and by 1910 she had opened larger offices at 3100 Pine Street in St. Louis. In 1917 she opened the doors of Poro College, the first cosmetology school geared toward training specialists for African American hair. It was a large, lavish facility that included well-equipped classrooms, an auditorium, an ice cream parlor and bakery, and a theater–as well as the manufacturing facilities for Poro products. Office space housed several prominent local and national African American organizations, and the college was soon a center of activity and influence in St. Louis’s African American community; it also provided a large number of jobs. The college itself offered training courses for women interested in joining the Poro System’s franchised agent-operator network. To Malone, deportment and appearance were as crucial to success as hair-care knowledge, and such specifics were an integral part of the curriculum. There were PORO agencies in every state in the Unites States, and in Alaska, Canada, Nova Scotia, Haiti, Cuba, the Bahamas, Central and South America, Africa, and the Philippines.
Malone married the husband from whom she took her best-known name in 1921, but her union with Aaron Malone would prove a disastrous one for the company. Malone’s Poro System continued to expand, and it was estimated that at one point in the 1920s her personal worth had reached $14 million. Thousands of Poro agents were doing business throughout the United States and the Caribbean. Malone moved out of the famed St. Louis facilities in 1930 when she opened new headquarters in Chicago. There, at 44th and South Parkway, sat what became known as the Poro Block.
During much of the 1920s, however, the Malones had been involved in a debilitating power struggle that was kept hidden from all but a few closest to the Poro System’s executive offices, in which her husband was ensconced as chief manager and president. That position was terminated when the two finally divorced in 1927, but before that Aaron Malone had worked long and hard to gain support from other prominent African Americans in his bid to take over the company when he eventually filed for divorce. In court, he claimed that the vast success of his wife’s business was due to the connections he had brought to their union, contacts he had made prior to 1921, and thus asked to the court to award him half the company. Annie Malone’s own charitable nature ultimately saved her, however; she had become a generous contributor to a number of organizations geared toward helping African American women; such largesse helped sway opinion in her favor, and Poro was saved when she agreed to pay her husband a $200,000 settlement.
These interminable internal and later public battles spelled the beginning of the end for Malone’s Poro empire. She sold her St. Louis property, and run-ins with the federal government over her failure to pay excise taxes (levied on goods like hair care products that are classified as luxury items); she was also negligent in paying real estate taxes and by 1951 the government had seized control of the company. Tragically, much of Malone’s wealth had gone into more worthy causes over the years. She reportedly supported a pair of students at every African American land-grant college in the country; orphanages for African American children regularly received donations of $5,000, and during the 1920s alone she reportedly gave $60,000 to the St. Louis Colored Young Women’s Christian Association, the Tuskegee Institute, and Howard University Medical School. Within her company Malone was equally magnanimous. Five-year employees received diamond rings, and punctuality and attendance were rewarded as well.
Malone belonged to numerous philanthropic groups as well, further reflecting her dedication to improving the lives of African Americans. The National Negro Business League, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, and the Colored Women’s Federated Clubs of St. Louis all benefited from Malone’s energy and prominent name. The St. Louis Colored Orphans Home was eventually named after her. On May 10, 1957, Malone died of a stroke in a Chicago hospital. Sadly, her worth had dwindled to a mere $100,000 by the time of her death. She was buried at the famous Burr Oaks cemetery in Chicago at the age of 87.
The Annie Malone Historical Society (AMHS)is a non-profit organization dedicated to giving proper recognition to a pillar of history and to share the story of extraordinary vision, dedication, commitment and success that was the life of Annie Turnbo Malone. Go to www.anniemalonehistoricalsociety.org or join us on Facebook for more information about her life and legacy. To see a short video about Annie Malone on Youtube, copy the URL below in your browser- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVOOjnbJ-EU.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 13, Gale Research, 1996.
Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green, Notable American Women: The Modern Period, (Belknap Press, 1980)
Notable Black American Women, Gale Research, 1992