Annie Turnbo Malone
Who was the first American Black woman to become a millionaire? Some believe it was Madam C.J. Walker who operated a cosmetic/hair care products company for Black women in the early years of the 20th century. Yet actually it was Annie Turnbo Malone who developed her own similar company and in fact Madam Walker was at one time her sales agents.
Born in Metropolis, Illinois in August, 1877, Annie Minerva Turnbo was the daughter of formerly enslaved parents and the tenth of eleven children. Her parents died when she was quite young and in 1896 she went to live with an older sister to attend the local high school. However, though she had a deep interest in chemistry, she had to drop out of school because of illness.
Once out of school, Annie turned to working with her sister in developing procedures and products for Black women to care for their hair. This was a time when Black women treated their curly hair with a variety of products—often homemade. Since some wanted to straighten their tresses to let them wear popular hairstyles they used commercial products that were often harsh and destructive. Miss Turnbo developed and sold remedies that treated the scalp and hair and were non-destructive.
Annie then began to produce and sell her own product line of non-damaging hair straighteners, and oils to stimulate hair growth. One of her most popular remedy was the bottled “Wonderful Hair Grower” which she and her sales agents sold door to door. Gradually her products began to change methods by which African Americans treated and cared for their hair.
By 1902 Turnbo had moved to St. Louis, Missouri where she and her employees continued to sell her products—and to increase business she gave away free samples to attract customers.
Her products were very popular in St. Louis and so she opened a retail outlet in 1902. The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and the large numbers of fair goers, as well as many local customers helped her business grow. At the time St. Louis had one of the largest Black populations in an American city and this provided a major sales source. Also, Miss Turnbo began to widely advertise in the Black media and to recruit women to sell her products. In fact, at this time one of her agents was Sarah Breedlove Davis who later developed her own similar products and sold them under the name Madam C.J. Walker.
Like many other Black women at the time, Madam Walker had suffered from hair loss due to scalp dandruff and psoriasis. Miss Turnbo knew that the products marketed for these conditions were often alcohol based, and that only served to damage the scalp and hair. According to one source, she recommended that Madam Walker regularly treat her hair with a sulfur based product, eat correctly, and also massage her scalp. Her motto was “Clean Scalps Mean Clean Bodies” and the method worked. Soon Madam Walker’s short hair had grown longer.
Eventually, to prevent counterfeit product sales, Miss Turnbo copyrighted her product lines under the name of Poro. In fact, according to another source, “Mrs. Malone’s Poro system was not based on hair styling as much as it was on scalp hygiene.”
Then several years later because of increased need for such a facility, Miss Turnbo moved her operation into new quarters in St. Louis. In 1918 she established a cosmetology school/sales center where she manufactured her products. The large building featured a retail store, business offices, a 500 seat auditorium, meeting and dining rooms, a gymnasium and a chapel. Called Poro College, the facility soon became a community center serving the African American neighborhoods. One feature of the establishment was to offer studies and courses on personal appearance and conduct for its students. It was through this school and affiliated outlets that there was provided some 75,000 jobs for women in many parts of the world.
In 1902 Annie married but divorced five years later. Then in 1914 she married Aaron Eugene Malone, but by 1927 while her business interests were very successful, she and her husband were divorced. Then since Mr. Malone sought to receive half of the value of the business that brought the business into a court-ordered receivership. With support from other Black major leaders, Mrs. Malone settled, was affirmed as sole owner of Poro College and got her divorce.
After this, Turnbo expanded her business in Chicago, but with other lawsuits and the upcoming Great Depression She had to sell her St. Louis property, and though it was reduced in size, her business continued to thrive.
By the 1920s Malone was a millionaire many times over, but she lived modestly and donated large sums to Black businesses and educational venues.
After a stroke in May, 1957, she died in Chicago. Since she had had no children, so she willed her assets to nieces and nephews. Her estate was valued at $100,000.
When President Trump proclaimed Black History Month in February, 2019 he commemorated the event with honoring not just educational leaders Mary McLeod Bethune and Booker T. Washingtn but also Annie Malone. The proclamation read, “Annie Malone…became one of the most successful entrepreneurs in America at the turn of the century and provided opportunities for African Americans to pursue meaningful careers.”
One of Mrs. Malone’s contributions to her nation and her race was to help popularize beauty schools at a time when Black women were beginning to seek the best beauty treatments for themselves. Through her school Poro College, as well as through her treatments sold to African American women by their neighbors, it allowed Black women to improve their appearance. She also beloved that those who had attained commercial success should definitely make large contributions to their communities and neighborhoods.
For a few years Miss Turnbo and Madam Walker were business rivals, and each found success in their own areas of achievement in this field. However, perhaps because her background was more dramatic and because she lived a shorter time, Mrs. Walker became better known to Americans. However, in conducting her business Miss Turnbo had a different focus in her product development and sales efforts. According to a biographer, Miss Turnbo based her success on offering self-help and personal dignity.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.