Annie Turnbo Malone was one of the first self-made African-American millionaires. She used her success to bring others with her, creating jobs for thousands of other women like her and using her millions to support good causes.
Annie was born in southern Illinois in 1869. She was the daughter of two escaped slaves and the 10th of 11 children. When she was still young her parents both died, orphaning Annie (yes she’s the other ‘little orphan Annie’!) She moved to live with her older sister. Although she enjoyed going to school, particularly her chemistry lessons, poor health meant that she was very rarely able to attend.
While at home she would style and restyle her sister’s hair, becoming fascinated with haircare in the process. Using what knowledge of chemistry she had picked up she began to develop her own haircare products especially for black hair. One of the first products she developed was a non-damaging straightening solution.
By 1900 she had launched her ‘Wonderful Hair Grower’ as she called it, and began to sell it from door to door (forced into doing so as many usual retail routes were closed to her because she was a black woman.) Her business slowly began to grow as the popularity of her hair elixir soared.
In 1902 she moved to St Louis, for a bigger audience and the promise of the World Fair, which was coming in 1904. She recruited other women to help her sell her products and organised a marketing campaign, placing ads in local black press. She opened a shop in 1904 and began touring the country demonstrating her products and recruiting women to sell them in the different regions she visited.
One of her regional agents was Sarah Breedlove, then an unknown young woman. Sarah later launched her own cosmetics company and became better known as Madam C J Walker, another, much more well-known, self-made millionaire. Sarah encouraged Annie to trademark the name of her products. The brand name Annie had given her products was Poro, from a West African word.
Success followed success and in 1910 Annie moved to a bigger production factory. By the time she got married 4 years later she was already a millionaire! She reinvested her money in the huge, five story Poro College. More than just a college, the building also housed a manufacturing plant, a store front to sell the products, offices, dining rooms, a gym, a roof garden, an auditorium, a bakery, an ice cream parlour, a chapel and even tennis courts! She designed it to be a local hub and a place which would serve the local African American community. The college itself trained women (and some men) in haircare (using Poro products of course) and beauty, but also concerned itself with a more holistic curriculum teaching business acumen and presentation skills amongst other things. At its height it employed nearly 200 local people, mostly women.
The success of Annie’s company spread around the world. She franchised Poro training colleges around North America, but also in South America, Africa and the Philippines. It’s estimated that over 75,000 women were trained in these colleges, who also acted as Poro Agents, selling Annie’s products wherever they were.
It’s little wonder with such global success that by the 1920s Annie was a multi-millionaire. And yet she chose to live humbly, giving much of her vast wealth away. She supported the local black YMCA (in those days, in that place they were segregated), she gave money to enable young black people to attend college and donated to medical institutions. One cause particularly close to her heart was the local orphanage, St Louis Coloured Orphan’s Home. She gave generously to them and funded a new building on Goode* Street – which they renamed Annie Malone Drive in her name. She also served as the president on their board of directors from 1919 – 1943. The orphanage is now the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center.
Sadly, Annie’s success was not to last indefinitely. In 1927 her husband filed for divorce and demanded 50% of the business in the process. With support from fellow shero Mary McLeod Bethune Annie was able to negotiate a settlement of $200,000, retaining the ownership of the business she had built. However other lawsuits followed, including one from a former student who claimed they had in fact invented Annie’s famous hair elixir. Annie was ultimately able to win this and other lawsuits filed against her, but they took their toll. This coupled with the Great Depression of 1929 hit the Poro business hard. The final blow came when the IRS demanded unpaid taxes from Annie and she lost the Poro business to the government in order to pay them.
Annie Malone’s name is not as familiar now as her protégé, Madame C J Walker, with Walker often being cited as the first female self-made millionaire and the primary pioneer in black haircare and beauty products. Perhaps the sad decline of the Poro company name is the reason why no-one remembers the true owner of these accolades, Annie Turnbo Malone.
*The ‘Goode’ in Chuck Berry’s famous Johnny Be Goode was so spelled because he grew up near the very same Goode St in St Louis – and in fact he was one of the few men to attend Poro College and train as a beautician in the Poro system!
Find out more….
You can read an original news article about when Annie moved her factory from St Louis to Chicago in 1930 here.
Watch this short YouTube video about Annie’s life: