Why this forgotten woman could be America’s first black millionaire instead of C.J. Walker

Adom Tabbey-Botchwey August 13, 2019
Hair care entrepreneur Annie Malone. Pic credit: Wikimedia Commons

When African-American trailblazers are being celebrated, names like Frederick Douglass, Jackie Robinson, and Martin Luther King Jr. always come up and are revered and regarded as sources of pride in African-American households.

Their stories and achievements are taught to children in the U.S. and across the world. With regards to Blacks in business, the most known name is Madam C.J. Walker, who is said to be the first black millionaire in the U.S.

One name that was, up until recently, lost to history is Annie Malone, the woman who was the first black millionaire years before Madam C. J. Walker made her fortune.

A chemist, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone became a millionaire by successfully inventing and selling beauty products and techniques for black women in the U.S.

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Annie Malone. Pic credit: San Diego Free Press

She was born on August 9, 1869, in Metropolis, Illinois to Robert and Isabella Turnbo as the tenth of eleven children. After her parents died, an older sister, Ada Moody, raised her. Due to continuous bouts of sickness, she was unable to graduate high school. She did, however, discover she was good at chemistry and managed to make a living out of it.

While out of school, Annie took an interest in hairdressing, often practising with her sister Moody. At that time, the only ways available to straighten black hair was with bacon grease, heavy oils, and butter.

Some people also used a mixture of lye and potatoes; both methods severely damaging scalp and hair follicles. Turnbo first created a shampoo but decided to find a more efficient and less damaging way of straightening hair and by 1902, she had moved from Southern Illinois to St. Louis, Missouri in a bid to expand her business after the product she had invented was well received by the African-American beauty community in Southern Illinois.

She opened a shop on Market Street with three trained assistants. Per the racism and sexism that was rife in their day, they were denied access to the available distribution systems so they went door-to-door to sell their products and provided free demonstrations.

In 1903, she got married to one Mr.Pope, around the same time she is said to have met her most famous client (turned sales agent and rival in later years), Madam C. J. Walker, who went by the name Sarah Breedlove Davis or Sarah McWilliams at the time.

Turnbo divorced Mr Pope after four years of marriage in 1907 because he tried to interfere with her business, later marrying  Aaron Eugene Malone, a former teacher and religious book salesman on April 28, 1914.

After she first set up shop on 2223 Market Street in 1902, she 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.

In fact, by 1910, the business had expanded and achieved such success that Turnbo moved to a larger facility. The facility had a manufacturing plant and facilities for a beauty college, which she founded in 1917 and named Poro College, a combination of the surname from her first marriage, Pope and the surname of one of her sisters, Roberts.

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In 1920, Poro reported assets of $14 million, making Malone the first recorded female African-American millionaire. Pic credit: Atlanta Black Star

The name was first conceived during the copyrighting of her methods and formulas after C. J. Walker, once her distributor in Detroit, had left her employment and was remaking products under her own name using Turnbo’s formulas.

The building had 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 as a centre for religious and social functions for the African American community.

The Poro College became the first educational institution in the United States that exclusively studied and taught black cosmetology, graduating over 70,000 agents world-wide, with agents in the Caribbean.

It became a beacon for women of colour all across the world, equipping them with ways of making a living, safer and efficient ways of taking care of their beauty needs and a dream for young aspiring women of colour.

The school included training for students on a personal style to present themselves at work;  walking, talking and style of dress designed to maintain a solid public persona in its curriculum.

By 1926, the college employed 175 people and had outlets for products in North and South America, Africa, and the Philippines employed some 75,000 women.

In 1920, Poro reported assets of $14 million, making Malone the first recorded female African-American millionaire. Adjusting for inflation, her fortune would be worth $186 million in today’s dollars.

The Philadelphia Tribune reported that in 1923, Annie Malone paid the highest income tax of any African American in the country. In 1924, her income tax payment totalled nearly $40,000. Turnbo was a very wealthy woman.

In 1927, Aaron Eugene Malone, her husband, asked for a divorce and half of her company after 6 years on internal disagreements, as she left the management of the business to him and some other employees while she focused on her civic and social responsibilities and philanthropy.

After the very public divorce, she managed to cop a settlement of $200,000 to her now ex-husband. Right after, she was hit with a series of lawsuits by former employees that wanted credit for her success and some newspapers.

All of these took a toll on her finances, in addition to her excessive giving to charities and her leaving of the business in the hands of dishonest and incompetent employees.

In 1930, Malone moved her business to Chicago, where its location became known as the Poro block. The move did not, however, free her of her financial problems, as 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, a 20 per cent tax on luxuries, including hair-care products during the 1920s.

By 1943, she was almost $100,000 in debt and was served a lien by the Internal Revenue Service. In 1951, after 8 years of contesting lawsuits, she lost control of Poro to the government and other creditors, who sold off most of the holdings to pay taxes.

The Poro College building was later purchased by St. James African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and demolished in 1965 to construct The James House. She died later in 1957 in her Chicago home.

The loss of her business nearly tarnished her image and almost erased her from history, with her former employee C. J. Walker often being credited with most of her successes.

In recent times, more attention is being paid to her life and achievements, giving her the credit she deserves for the pioneering work she did in black cosmetology, women empowerment and philanthropy.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: August 13, 2019


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