She was a rich Black woman who lived on King Drive. She’s in the hit Netflix series “Self Made” about millionaire Madam C.J. Walker. Who was she?

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INSET: Annie Malone owned four mansions (one pictured) on Chicago's famed Martin Luther King Drive on the South Side.

Who was Annie Malone?

EDITOR’S NOTE: In light of Netflix’s new series, “Self Made” about Madam C.J. Walker, many readers are discovering the Crusader’s 2018 story on her real-life rival Annie Malone, known as “Addie Munroe” in the Netflix series.

For decades, many believed that Madam C.J. Walker was America’s first Black female millionaire, but the achievement really belongs to a forgotten Black woman who ran her beauty empire on King Drive for years before it crashed toward the end of her life

By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader

Near the front entrance of Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip is the grave of Annie Turnbo Malone. In life, she was the daughter of former slaves and a high school dropout who rose from poverty to extreme wealth as a pioneering hair care magnate.

Today, she rests beneath a small, modest iron headstone that bears her epitaph. It also bears the inscription “beauty pioneer.”

Buried with Annie Malone is a remarkable achievement that few know about today.

For decades, many have learned from history books and documentaries that Madam C.J. Walker was America’s first Black millionaire—a businesswoman who amassed a fortune with her hair grooming empire for Black women. However, today few know that Malone was actually the first self-made female Black millionaire, not Walker, who was a student of Malone’s before she hit it big on her own.

Fate brought the two together in St. Louis and their lives would remain linked forever. It was Malone who used the straightening comb to build her fortune before Walker got hold of it and turned it into a moneymaker for herself, too. It would be one of several products that Walker claimed as hers as the two became fierce rivals.

ANNIE MALONE advertised in the Black Press to promote her line pf Poro products

With similar backgrounds and ambitions, they blazed a trail for a future generation of hair beauty pioneers. Eventually, Walker’s legacy would grow and overshadow Malone as fame and fortune would take both Black women in two different directions in their lives.

With a sprawling estate, luxury cars and a thriving business, Walker died at the height of her wealth and success. Malone did not.

Lawsuits, ugly divorces and IRS bills claimed Malone’s groundbreaking empire and tarnished her legacy that she spent an entire life building. Today, Malone’s legacy is largely forgotten while Walker’s success remains the story of record.

Along with Johnson Products, Soft Sheen, S.B. Fuller, Murray Cosmetics Company and Johnson Publishing Company’s Fashion Fair, Malone would help establish Chicago as the capital of the Black hair grooming business. She would operate her empire on an entire block of grand mansions on what is now called South King Drive. Where the legendary Black newspaper Chicago Defender and Irvin C. Mollison Elementary School now stand is where the mansions that housed Malone’s Poro College once stood and produced thousands of aspiring beauticians and hair care agents.

Malone was born on August 9, 1869 in Metropolis, IL. Located some 366 miles from Chicago, it’s a town that sits on the Ohio River and near the Kentucky state border. Malone was the tenth of 11 children. Like most slaves, her father, Robert Turnbo, joined the Union Army during the Civil War. Malone’s parents died when she was young.

Her frequent illnesses forced her to drop out of high school; she turned to hairdressing as her only skill.

With her older sister as a surrogate parent, the family moved to Lovejoy, IL. Founded as the nation’s oldest predominantly Black city in 1838, the town of Lovejoy is also known as the place where abolitionist, Elijah Lovejoy, was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in 1837. It was here Malone began learning the science of hair texture differences for people of color. She began experimenting with chemicals and developed her hair care skills before she found her calling as a beauty care specialist. She envisioned a way of straightening hair without using soap, goose fat, heavy oils, butter and bacon grease and other materials that damaged the scalp and caused broken hair follicles.

In 1905, the family moved to St. Louis, MO, which then had the nation’s fourth largest Black population.

Malone set up a hair care business in Ville, an upwardly mobile area northwest of downtown St. Louis. She hired three Black women as assistants who would go door-to-door selling the products and performing product demonstrations.

One of her protégés was Walker, who moved to St. Louis from Delta, LA in 1888 where she was born on a plantation in 1857. Her maiden name then was Sarah Breedlove and she learned about hair grooming from her brothers who were barbers in St. Louis. Walker also suffered with severe dandruff and other scalp ailments caused by the application of harsh products, such as lye.

ANNIE MALONE

In 1903, Malone married Nelson Pope, but the couple divorced four years later. In 1904, Malone’s reputation exploded as she promoted her “Great Wonderful Hair Grower” product at the St. Louis World’s Fair.

In 1906, Breedlove stepped out of her boss’ shadow and moved to Denver where she married Charles Joseph Walker. With a new name, Walker began experimenting with her own hair care products.

That year, Malone picked “Poro” as the name of her business and trademarked it. “Poro” is a West African word for “an organization that’s dedicated to discipline and enhancing the body physically.” It fit well with Malone’s belief that Black women would feel better about themselves if they improved their self-image and beauty.

Malone established Poro Products for hair care and beauty products as well as the Poro System for her merchandising, distribution and marketing systems. She also built a massive $1 million Poro building in St. Louis that served as the company’s headquarters and meeting place for social and business events.

Selling her product through press conferences and advertisements in the Black Press, Malone also conducted demonstrations in the Black churches and Black women’s clubs.

In 1914, Malone—then named Annie Turnbo-Pope—married Aaron Eugene Malone, who served as president and chief manager of his wife’s company. In 1918, Malone established the Poro College of Beauty, according to the State Historical Society of Missouri. The school would eventually expand to other cities with a workforce totaling 75,000 women beauty agents.

As Malone’s former protégé, Walker moved to Indianapolis in 1910 where she would train some 40,000 “Walker Agents” to grow her business. Walker developed similar products as her rival, but she would also be more business savvy and a marketing guru. Instead of the “Great Wonderful Hair Grower,” Walker would sell the “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” And whereas Malone took her product’s name from an African word, Walker took it one step further and claimed that ingredients in her hair products were of African origin.

Walker also took the straightening comb and made the teeth wider to produce straighter hair. As a result, sales sizzled, according to an article by prominent Black Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The article also stated Walker added “Madam” in front of her name because it had a French cache while “defying many white people’s tendency to refer to Black women by their first names, or worse, as ‘Auntie.’”

In addition to hair care products, Walker sold customers a lifestyle that included a concept of total hygiene and beauty. And while graduates of Malone’s Poro College of Beauty received certificates, graduates of Walker’s “Leila College” received diplomas. By 1913, Madam Walker had offices and beauty culture schools in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Brooklyn and New York..

MADAM C.J. WALKER’s historic theater and manufacturing building in Indianapolis looks similar to Annie Malone’s Poro College building in St. Louis.

Eight years after Walker’s death in 1919, her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, completed the construction of a four-story Walker Theatre Company building, similar in looks to Malone’s Poro building in St. Louis.

Both Malone and Walker were generous philanthropists. Malone donated $25,000—then the largest private donation—to Howard University’s Medical School and $25,000 to start a YMCA in a Black neighborhood in St. Louis. Walker contributed $1,000 to build the first Black YMCA in Indianapolis.

As far as wealth, Malone was earning and spending millions years before Walker’s empire got off the ground.  By the 1920s, Malone’s wealth was estimated at $14 million ($200 million today when adjusted for inflation). The Philadelphia Tribune reported that Malone paid some $40,000 in taxes in the mid-1920s.

A highly publicized, six-year legal battle ended in a nasty divorce. Malone’s husband, who argued he helped the business grow by his contacts, received $200,000 in 1927. Three years later, Malone moved her empire to Chicago, where she bought four mansions that occupied an entire city block on South Parkway.

A BROCHURE FROM Poro College after it relocated to Chicago shows Annie Malone’s line of beauty products.

 

Known as the “Poro Block,” Malone’s mansion at 4411 South Parkway (today it is King Drive) was once owned by John R. Thompson, a prominent businessman who did not allow Blacks to eat in his restaurants. According to an article in the Chicago Defender, Malone’s arrival in Chicago was met with a lavish reception attended by Defender founder Robert S. Abbott.

From various reports, Pilgrim Baptist Church music director Thomas Dorsey wrote his famous hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” while sitting at a piano inside a mansion on the Poro College Campus in 1932 following the death of both his wife and infant.

Despite its warm reception in Chicago, Malone’s business never achieved the level of success it had when it was headquartered in St. Louis. While she traveled to expand her empire, she left the day-to-day affairs to unscrupulous managers who were either inexperienced or dishonest. She was the target of several lawsuits, including one by an employee who sued her after claiming credit to Malone’s success. The suit was settled in 1937, and Malone was forced to sell the St. Louis property.

In January 1940, a fire destroyed Malone’s mansion causing $50,000 in damage, according to an article in the Defender. The next year, community leaders rushed to stop IRS agents as they were evicting Malone from two of her buildings after she failed to pay thousands of dollars in back taxes. By 1943, Malone owed $100,000 and a lien was placed on her buildings. After eight years of fighting the feds, she lost Poro. The government took control of the business and sold it to pay off the massive tax debt.

Both Poro College in St. Louis and the Poro Block in Chicago were subsequently demolished. Poro beauty operators and their Poro Clubs persisted; the last Poro College in Cincinnati is said to have closed in 1989.

Numerous reports say the business failure tarnished Malone’s image while Walker’s empire thrived after her death in 1919.  Malone died of a stroke at Provident Hospital on May 10, 1957. Poro Beauty Colleges operated in some 30 cities at the time of her death. While Malone rests in peace at Burr Oak Cemetery, Walker lies in New York’s prominent Woodlawn Cemetery, resting place of many of the nation’s famous citizens, including jazz artists Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton.

THE ANNIE MALONE May Day Parade is 108 years old and second largest African American parade after Chicago’s Bud Billiken Parade.

St. Louis has kept Malone’s legacy alive. On May 20, the city will host the 108th annual Annie Malone May Day parade, a major fundraiser and popular event in St. Louis. It is the oldest Black parade in the country and second largest after Chicago’s Bud Billiken Day Parade.

The Annie Malone Children and Family Center, which Malone helped build in 1922, is still in operation. Once known as the Annie Malone Mansion, the building was at one time an orphanage for Black children, who were shunned by white families.

ANNIE MALONE’S MODEST GRAVE at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip.

There are also documents on Malone and her business on the website of the African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington D.C. In 2002, the DuSable Museum of African American History hosted a six-month-long exhibit entitled, “Annie Malone: Black Beauty Culture Pioneer and Millionaire.”

Author Somari Wills mentioned Malone in a new book, Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires, which was released in February this year. In 1993, a reader of Ebony magazine wrote a letter to the editor and asked the iconic publication why Malone wasn’t mention in its edition of “50 Black Women Who Made a Difference.”

Malone is not mentioned in Dempsey Travis’ popular, Autobiography of Black Chicago, nor is there a marker or annual event that celebrates her life and contributions.

“Annie Malone was the first Black millionaire,” said Theresa Shields, administrative coordinator for the Annie Malone Foundation, which manages the annual parade in St. Louis. “A lot of people don’t know about her because of Madam C.J. Walker. She took a lot of Malone’s products and took credit for them. It’s sad.”

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12 COMMENTS

  1. It should be noted that Mrs. Malone’s achievements distinguished HER as the first self-made Female Millionaire in the U.S.

  2. Neither of these women is the first to create hair products. Many people has taken one product to improve and make it better.So many of these ingredients was used in African and passed down through family generations. Madame Walker deserve her success for going out and starting her own business, because another women believed she wasn’t worthy based on her looks and darkness of her skin. I am proud of both women, but we still are faced w. this same judgement from our own race when it come to darker skin color people, we are not beautiful and overlooked for the lighter skin tone women. Don’t let it stop you, use it to empower your self esteem, let it be an blessing not an curse an go for it.

    • Hmm, you can’t say that you’re proud of both women and yet make passive-aggressive comments about skin color. Both had challenges in their own right, in their own day. However, there is a difference between re-purposing something and stealing it. Every culture has had its own ways of improving their looks, whether it was their hair, skin, clothing, etc. Native Americans are known to have used buffalo fat, sticks and fire to straighten their hair because it had symbolic meaning. Nordic people braided their hair for centuries, it’s not unique to African heritage. My point is that let’s focus on the positive. We all know that if the situation had been that a White person had stolen this glory from Madame CJ, there would be no cutting corners, wrong would be wrong. We can’t want the “truth” to be told when it benefits us and makes us look good, and then placate things when it’s the opposite. The truth is just what it is. How about we think about why is it that these two women in their day in age managed to become millionaires, but *This* day in age, when we have more opportunities, not just as minority women, but women overall, we can’t seem to have the same success? Just sayin’.

      • Big D, you read my mind about Tena B. I knew she was dark skinned before she said she was. It was obvious in her biased statement. I love black success, but I could respect walker if she gave credit to Malone as her mentor.

        • I was enjoying this movie until the “media machine” began to demonize Ms. Malone who had already developed her product. Ms. Walker stole. That’s the truth. Yet, she’s celebrated-maybe by some-because of her darker skin color. Why are films made to show such contempt within the race? Why did this actress take this role? Therefore, the division has been re-established in 2020 for this generation to pass on –

  3. Does it matter who became a millionaire first? Lets celebrate the fact that both became millionaires during such times.
    As for the mini-series, It covered a lot in four episodes. Personally I think most folk are shocked at how many taboo issues were raised. At the end of the day, if it wasnt commissioned and aired, most would never know about Madame C.J. Walker, or Annie Malone!

  4. Stellar research and reporting by Erick Johnson makes this article noteworthy. I wish the Netflix series reflected more history and not “color politics theatre” .Keep up the great work!

  5. So now we know why the character in the miniseries has a different name. I’m pretty sure the holders of Mrs Malone’s legacy wouldn’t approve of the storyline.
    Although I enjoyed “Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam CJ Walker”, the title itself really just ignited my curiousity, which is how I came across this page.
    Thank you, CRUSADERSTAFF, for this very insightful article.

  6. The primary reason most viewers of “Self-Made” had not heard of Mrs. Annie Turnbo Malone has nothing to do with her perceived historical rivalry with Madam CJ Walker. This controversy is derived completely from the failure of Walker biographers to present an honest assessment of the origins of Madam Walker’s enterprise. This is one of the aspects of Mrs. Annie Malone’s life which I address in my biography of her entitled “A Friend to All Mankind “.

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