Annie Turnbo Malone
Malone, Annie 1869–1957
Annie Malone 1869–1957
Annie Tumbo 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 11 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 Love-joy, 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
Born Annie Minerva Turnbo, August 9, 1869, in Metropolis, IL; daughter of Robert (a farmer) and Isabella (Cook) Turnbo; married Mr. Pope, c 1903 (marriage ended); married Aaron Malone, c 1921 (divorced, 1927); died, 1957.
Founder of hair care product line for African Americans; developed business into the Poro System, a network of franchised agent-operators who operated salons under Malone’s guidelines suing Poro products. Founded Poro College, 1917, in St. Louis, MO, the first school for the training of beauty culture specialists for African American clientele. Was also actively involved in numerous philanthropic organizations.
out 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; she was a millionaire when she died in 1919. 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 ground-breaker.
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.
Malone married the husband from which 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 had 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 also.
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 87.
Porter, Gladys L., Three Negro Pioneers in Beauty Culture, Vantage Press, 1966.
Smith, Jessie Carney, Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made A Difference, Visible Ink Press, 1993, p. 363.
Annie Turnbo Malone
Annie Turnbo Malone
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.
Malone was born Annie Minerva Turnbo born on August 9, 1869, in Metropolis, Illinois. She was the tenth of 11 children of Robert Turnbo, a poor farmer, and Isabella Cook Turnbo. Her parents died when Malone was young and an older sister raised her in nearby Peoria. Although she did attend school, frequent illness caused her to withdraw before completing high school. As a young girl, Malone enjoyed fashioning her own and her sisters' hair. She became aware of differences in hair texture and sought a way to straighten hair.
Started Hair-Care Business
During the late 19th century, African American women used soap, goose fat, and heavy oils to straighten their hair. Chemical straighteners often damaged the scalp and hair follicles. While living in Lovejoy, Illinois, around the turn of the century, Malone developed a chemical product that straightened African American hair without damage. She claimed to have studied chemistry and to have been influenced by an aunt who was trained as an herbal doctor. She expanded her hair care line to include other beauty products, including her popular Wonderful Hair Grower. Some historians also credit Malone with developing the pressing iron and comb around this time. Malone sold her products locally.
In 1902, Malone moved her business to St. Louis, Missouri, where she hired and trained three assistants. As black women, they were denied access to traditional distribution systems, so they sold the products door-to-door and provided free demonstrations. In 1903, Malone married a Mr.Pope, but she divorced him after a short time because he tried to interfere with her business.
During the 1904 World's Fair, Malone opened a retail outlet. Visitors to St. Louis responded favorably to her products, prompting her to embark on an innovative marketing campaign aimed at distributing the product nationally. In addition to going door-to-door, she and her trained assistants traveled to black churches and community centers, providing free hair and scalp treatments. She held press conferences and advertised in black newspapers. Malone traveled throughout the South at a time of racial discrimination and violence, giving demonstrations in black churches and women's clubs. Everywhere she went, she hired and trained women to serve as local sales agents. They, in turn, recruited others. By 1910, distribution had expanded nationally.
One of her Malone's recruits was Madame C.J. Walker, a former washerwoman who eventually founded her own company with similar beauty products and distribution. She is widely regarded as the most successful black entrepreneur of the early 20th century and founder of the black beauty business in the United States. However, historians credit Malone with having developed her products and distribution system first. Walker sold her own "Wonderful Hair Straightener," which Malone called a fraudulent imitation. As a result, Malone trademarked Poro, a new name for her product and merchandising systems in 1906. (Poro is a West African word for an organization dedicated to disciplining and enhancing the body spiritually and physically.)
In 1914, Malone married Aaron Eugene Malone, an ex-teacher and Bible salesman. Her husband became the company's chief manager and president. The young couple did more than just manufacture beauty products. They also provided a way for African American women to improve themselves on many levels. At a time when few career opportunities were available, Poro offered them a chance at economic independence. Malone believed that if African American women improved their physical appearance, they would gain greater self-respect and achieve success in other areas of their lives.
Committed to Black Community
Malone was committed to community building and social welfare. To that end she built Poro College in 1918, 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, the college employed 175 people. Franchised outlets in North and South America, Africa, and the Philippines employed some 75,000 women. Malone had become a wealthy woman. It is believed that she was worth $14 million at one point during the 1920s. Her 1924 income tax totaled nearly $40,000. However, 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. Malone donated large sums to countless charities. At one time, it is believed that she was supporting two full-time students in every black land-grant college in the United States. She gave $25,000 to the Howard University Medical School during the 1920s that, at the time, was the largest gift the school had ever received from an African American. She also contributed to the Tuskegee Institute. Malone was also generous with family and employees. She educated many of her nieces and nephews and bought homes for her brothers and sisters. She awarded employees with lavish gifts for attendance, punctuality, service anniversaries, and as rewards for investing in real estate.
A $25,000 donation from Malone helped build the St. Louis Colored YWCA. She also contributed to several orphanages and donated the site for the St. Louis Colored Orphans' Home. She raised most of the orphanage's construction costs and served on the home's executive board from 1919 to 1943. The home was renamed the Annie Malone Children's Home in 1946. Malone also gave generously of her time in the community. She was president of the Colored Women's Federated Clubs of St. Louis, an executive committee member of the National Negro Business League and the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, an honorary member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and a lifelong Republican.
Malone's generosity raised her stature in the community but contributed to the financial decline of her business. While she was spending time on civic affairs and distributing her wealth to various organizations, she left the day-to-day affairs of the business in the hands of managers, including her husband. Some of these managers were inexperienced or dishonest, eventually leading to the dismantling of her business empire.
For the six years leading up to 1927, Annie and Aaron Malone became embroiled in a power struggle over control of the Poro business. The struggle was kept quiet until 1927, when Aaron Malone filed for divorce and demanded half the business. He claimed that Poro's success was due to contacts he brought to the company. He courted black leaders and politicians who sided with him in the highly publicized divorce. Annie Malone's devotion to black women and charitable institutions led Poro workers and church leaders to support her. She also had the support of the press and Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Association of Colored Women. Having the support of so powerful a woman helped Annie Malone prevail in the dispute and allowed her to keep her business. She negotiated a settlement of $200,000.
In 1930, Malone moved her business to Chicago, where its location became known as the Poro block. Her financial trouble continued when she became the target of lawsuits, including one by a former employee who claimed credit for her success. When the suit was settled in 1937, she was forced to sell the St. Louis property. Malone's business was further crippled by enormous debt to the government for unpaid real estate and excise taxes. (The federal government required a 20 percent tax on luxuries, including hair-care products during the 1920s.) In 1943, she owed almost $100,000. The government was constantly taking her to court and by 1951, it took control of Poro. Most of the property was sold to pay the taxes.
Malone's business failure tarnished her image. Her former employee, Madame C.J. Walker, often overshadows Malone because Walker's business remained successful and 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 that Malone developed. Many historians believe Malone deserves more credit for her devotion to helping African Americans gain financial independence and her generous donations to educational, civic, and social causes.
Annie Turnbo Malone died of a stroke on May 10, 1957, in Chicago, Illinois. She was 87. By the time of her death, Malone had lost her national visibility and most of her money. Having no children, her estate, valued at $100,000, was left to her nieces and nephews.
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Notable American Women: The Modern Period, edited by Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green, Belknap Press, 1980.
Notable Black American Women, Gale Research, 1992.
Peiss, Kathy L., "American Women and the Making of Modern Consumer Culture," The Journal for Multi-Media History, Fall 1998,http://www.albany.edu/jmmh/vol1no1/peiss-text.html (February 5, 2003). □