Sankofa Studies

Annie Turnbo Malone

February 1, 2021

Mother of hair care. Pioneer of cosmetology schools. Owner and operator of the Poro College. Chemist. Entrepreneur. Philanthropist.

Did you see Self-Made on Netflix? It’s been almost a year since its release and I am still hot as fish grease! I have nothing against Madam CJ Walker. She was a force. She also gets ALL of the Black hair care shine – even though she wasn’t the first in the industry. She was also a millionaire, but she wasn’t the first. Her life is certainly worthy of documentaries and feature films, but so is another woman by the name of Annie Turnbo Malone. In the fictional movie, Annie was turned into “Addie” and made the nemesis of Madam CJ Walker. And though I am sure there were some hard feelings between the two, the way Netflix dug Annie Malone up (a largely unknown hero of hair care) and made her into something she wasn’t was hard for me to accept. I have been singing Annie Turnbo Malone’s praises to anyone who would listen for years, but after the movie, I read the book, ‘A Friend To All Mankind: Mrs. Annie Turnbo Malone and the Poor College’ by Paul H. Whitfield. After reading it, my appreciation for Annie Malone hit all new highs. I have been riding for Annie Malone for a long time and I want everybody to know her name and speak it. So, what better way to kick off BHM 2021, than with Annie Turnbo Malone!? I couldn’t think of a better person.

Annie Malone was orphaned at a young age, and attended a public school in Metropolis, before moving in 1896 to live with her older sister Ada Moody in Peoria. There Turnbo attended high school, taking a particular interest in chemistry. However, due to frequent illness, she was forced to withdraw from classes. While out of school, Turnbo grew so fascinated with hair and hair care that she often practiced hairdressing with her sister. With expertise in both chemistry and hair care, Turnbo began to develop her own hair-care products. She developed and manufactured her own line of non-damaging hair straighteners, special oils, and hair-stimulant products for African-American women. She named her new product “Wonderful Hair Grower”. To promote her new product, Turnbo sold the Wonderful Hair Grower in bottles door-to-door. Her products and sales began to revolutionize hair-care methods for all African Americans. In 1902, Turnbo moved to a thriving St. Louis, where she and three employees sold her hair-care products door-to-door. Due to the high demand for her product in St. Louis, Turnbo opened her first shop in 1902 at 2223 Market Street. She also launched a wide advertising campaign in the black press, held news conferences, toured many southern states, and recruited many women whom she trained to sell her products.

One of her selling agents, Sarah Breedlove Davis, later known as Madam C. J. Walker, operated first in St. Louis and later in Denver until a disagreement led Walker to leave the company. Walker took the original Poro formula and created her own brand of it. This development was one of the reasons why Annie Turnbo Malone sought to copyright her products under the name “Poro” because of what she called fraudulent imitations and to discourage counterfeit versions. Poro may have received this name from a Mende word for devotional society or it may be a combination of the married names of Annie Pope and her sister Laura Roberts. Due to the growth in her business, in 1910 Turnbo moved to a larger facility on 3100 Pine Street.

In 1918, she established Poro College, a cosmetology school and center. The building included a manufacturing plant, a retail store where Poro products were sold, business offices, a 500-seat auditorium, dining and meeting rooms, a roof garden, dormitory, gymnasium, bakery, and chapel. It served the African-American community as a center for religious and social functions. The college’s curriculum addressed the whole student; students were coached on personal style for work: on walking, talking, and a style of dress designed to maintain a solid persona. Poro College employed nearly 200 people in St. Louis. Through its school and franchise businesses, the college created jobs for almost 75,000 women in North and South America, Africa and the Philippines.

Her business thrived until 1927 when her husband filed for divorce. Having served as president of the company, he demanded half of the business’ value, based on his claim that his contributions had been integral to its success. The divorce suit forced Poro College into court-ordered receivership. With support from her employees and powerful figures such like Mary McLeod Bethune, she negotiated a settlement of $200,000. This affirmed her as the sole owner of Poro College, and the divorce was granted.

After the divorce, Turnbo moved most of her business to Chicago’s South Parkway, where she bought an entire city block. Other lawsuits followed. In 1937, during the Great Depression, a former employee filed suit, also claiming credit for Poro’s success. To raise money for the settlement, Turnbo Malone sold her St. Louis property. Although much reduced in size, her business continued to thrive.

By the 1920s, Annie Turnbo Malone had become a multi-millionaire. In 1924 she paid income tax of nearly $40,000, reportedly the highest in Missouri. While extremely wealthy, Malone lived modestly, giving thousands of dollars to the local black YMCA and Howard University. She became a benefactor of the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home, where she served as president on the board of directors from 1919 to 1943. With her help, in 1922 the Home bought a facility at 2612 Goode Avenue, which was renamed Annie Malone Drive in her honor. The Orphans Home is located in the historic Ville neighborhood. Upgraded and expanded, the facility was renamed in the entrepreneur’s honor as the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center. As well as funding many programs, Turnbo Malone ensured that her employees, all African American, were paid well and given opportunities for advancement.

So how is it that we know very little about Annie Turnbo Malone? And why did Madam CJ Walker receive so much recognition and credit for things she didn’t do or accomplish (like invent the pressing comb and perms)? “The story of Madam CJ Walker was popularized, justifiably, from photographs demonstrating the growth of her wealth, albeit short-lived, and the appeal of her ‘rags to riches’ experience,” Whitfield said. “The story of Mrs. Annie Turnbo Malone exemplified a different focus — self-help and personal dignity.” Also, Madam CJ Walker had family that kept her business and her legacy alive, but Annie Malone did not. “But there’s room enough in history to honor Malone and Walker, especially since the former’s business expertise led to the rise of the latter. One generation removed from slavery, these two black women both ran wildly successful business empires unimaginable to even the average American, let alone to average black women, who worked mostly as domestics during the turn of the century.”

So when we speak the name of Madam CJ Walker, Annie Malone’s name should be spoken as well.

I highly recommend the book, ‘A Friend To All Mankind.’ Annie Malone’s life was fascinating and inspiring. It makes me sad when I think of how many of us will never know her story.


Visit my bookshop and pick up ‘A Friend To All Mankind.’

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