For decades, many believed that Madam C.J. Walker was America’s first Black 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 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.
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 Chicago Defender and Irvin C. Mollison Elementary School now stand is where 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.
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 in 1906. 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..
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.
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.
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.
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.”