Annie Turnbo Malone was a businesswoman and philanthropist from Illinois, known for her cosmetic inventions and the Poro College. Because of her work, she’s sometimes referred to as the “mother” of the African American cosmetics, hair care, and beauty industries. Malone was also the first black female millionaire in America.
Annie developed a strong interest in chemistry during her high school years, but was forced to drop out because of illness. She experimented at home with hair care, developing her own hair-related products. Sometime in 1900 or 1901, Annie started to sell her solutions from door to door. At the time, some hair products for black women were damaging, so alternatives were welcomed with open arms. Malone’s new business grew quickly. Especially popular was an innovative straightening solution. Annie moved to St. Louis in 1902, opening a shop and hiring assistants to help with selling products. After success at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, she expanded to a national level. Annie Malone was worth over a million dollars within a decade.
Annie used her wealth to have a massive five-story building constructed. It contained facilities for a beauty college, a manufacturing plant, a retail store, 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,” according to local sources. The college, named Poro College, employed 200 people in St. Louis. Over 75,000 women around the world graduated from the college (or one of its franchises), which was the first U.S. educational institution dedicated to the study and teaching of black cosmetology. It was well known; even rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry was a graduate of the Poro College, following in the footsteps of his sisters.
In the mid-1920s Annie paid an income tax of around $40,000. The Philadelphia Tribune reported that Annie Malone was one of the richest African Americans in the nation, if not the richest. However, she was well-known for her philanthropy, and lived modestly, giving thousands to the local black YMCA, the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington DC, the Tuskegee Institute, and the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home. Annie’s donations allowed the orphan’s home to expand considerably, and in 1946 it was renamed The Annie Malone Children’s Home. Today it is known as The Annie Malone Children & Family Service Center, and remains an important part of the St. Louis community.
Annie Malone died of a stroke in May, 1957 at the age of 87, and left her remaining money to nieces and nephews. Her legacy in the beauty products field was often overshadowed by the success of her former Poro employee Sarah Breedlove – also known as the famous Madam C. J. Walker. However, Annie’s incredible contributions to social causes and her celebrity status provided a powerful inspiration for African Americans hoping to gain financial independence. We honor her life during Black History Month and hope others can be inspired by her strong character, her entrepreneurship, and her legacy.