Before Madam C.J. Walker, There Was Annie Malone

Malone may not have had Walker’s million-dollar marketing strategy, but she had a million dollars first.

Madam C.J. Walker is a big name in history — so big in fact, that for over a century, she eclipsed the name of Annie Malone, the woman she worked for. People often give Walker credit for what Malone did first — establishing a haircare empire and reaching millionaire status as a Black American woman. Certainly, there’s room in the history books for both of these amazing trailblazers. Yet, those who’ve studied Malone’s life would argue that had it not been for her, there would be no Madam C.J. Walker.

So, let’s go back a little bit. Shall we?

When Malone purchased an entire block of stately mansions in Chicago, Illinois in the late 1920s it was poetic justice. The prime real estate she acquired included the former home of a white restaurateur who refused to serve Black patrons. But that was Malone's “Act Two.” Before she took on the Windy City, she’d already made a name for herself in St. Louis, Missouri.

Malone’s accomplishments flow like the waters of the Mississippi roll past the region where she started her business. Ask anyone who grew up in The Ville, a historic African American neighborhood in St. Louis, about Annie Malone and they’ll tell you that she is a legend. In 1918, not only did she build one of the city’s most magnificent buildings in The Ville to house her business that was worth upwards of $14 million, but she gave back to her community in pure, fairy godmother-like fashion.

Among her many philanthropic deeds, she helped to build an orphan’s home for St. Louis’ Black children. To this day, the home operates as The Annie Malone Children & Family Services Center and the organization hosts the annual Annie Malone May Day Parade — one of the largest African American parades in the country.

Even with all of her success, Malone is not a household name. Walker, her protége, was clearly better at marketing, posturing, and being glamorous. Yes, Walker was an influencer before it was a thing. However, if we are to lend truth to storytelling we cannot overlook the influence of Annie Malone.

While growing up in rural Illinois, Malone could have never imagined her love for hairstyling would one day lead to so many remarkable achievements. However, what she did see back then became the foundation for her prosperity.

And she’d seen enough…

Enough of the painful scalp wounds that black women inflicted upon themselves by using harsh chemicals to straighten their tightly coiled tresses. Enough of singed, damaged hair caused by women who used animal fats, butter, and even bacon grease to style their textured hair. Women and their daughters desperately trying to shake off any semblance of the hard labor, mistreatment, and poverty that had been cast upon them during 200+ years of bondage…she’d seen enough of that, too.

Annie Minerva Turnbo was born into a large family on August 9, 1869, near the southern Illinois town of Metropolis. Her formerly enslaved parents traveled from Kentucky just a few years before. Freedom brought the couple to the Midwest where they worked as sharecroppers and raised their 11 children. Malone, one of the youngest, was immersed in the resilience and ingenuity of everyone she saw around her — the first African Americans who were released from enslavement and were now tasked with building new lives from the ground up.

As a child, Malone displayed a natural talent for hairdressing and she delighted in creating beautiful styles for her sisters. But she harbored a disdain for the hair products that she and other Black women commonly used. Shampoos and straighteners often contained drying, damaging ingredients such as alkaline and lye.

As she grew older, Malone began accompanying her aunt into the forest near her home. It was here among the lush greenery that her aunt, an herbalist, taught her how to identify plants and flowers to make “medicine.” Malone was fascinated as she watched how nature’s bounty could become teas and ointments that treated a variety of ailments, including chronic skin and scalp conditions. This knowledge would one day merge with Malone’s passion for hairstyling, yet that wouldn’t happen until years later.

Malone’s parents died before she finished high school, and she and her younger sister Laura moved to Peoria, Illinois to live with one of their older sisters and continue their schooling. However, frequent illnesses caused Malone to miss several weeks of school and she was forced to drop out — but not before she’d developed a passion for chemistry.

Studying chemistry reminded Malone of the concoctions her aunt used to make and it gave her a brilliant idea. She turned to hairstyling full-time and combined her knowledge of herbs and flowers with what she’d learned in chemistry. She starting mixing up herbal shampoos and conditioners, and experimented on her own hair, as well as her sisters’ and friends’ coils. The results were spectacular but Malone didn't stop there.

She realized that overall beauty was tied to self-confidence and societal respect and she learned that proper hygiene could improve the health of one’s skin and hair follicles. Many Black women were so conditioned to care for others they often neglected themselves because they’d never had the luxury to engage in self-care. Malone was on a mission to change that. She not only developed a hair-growth pomade, but she also created a holistic, self-care system that taught black women how to improve their cleansing and beauty routines.

Lovejoy, Illinois is where it all came together. At age 31, Malone took a courageous leap of faith and relocated 200 miles from home to jumpstart her business. The small town was conveniently located just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis and it’s where she started mass-producing and selling her hair products, including her hair-growth pomade — a product she called the Hair Grower.

White-owned distribution companies and retail chains had refused to carry Malone’s items, so she decided to start selling her products door-to-door while also offering to style potential customer’s hair, free of charge in their homes so they could witness the amazing results for themselves. Word spread about her miraculous hair products and she quickly gained new customers. Her business was finally taking off and she suddenly found herself in need of help.

Malone hired a few young women in the community as sales agents and her sister Laura also moved to Lovejoy to work in the business. With the help of her new team, Malone began selling her products across the river into St. Louis, which was accessible by a short train ride. The ladies canvassed the black neighborhoods and started visiting the local A.M.E. church on Sundays. To her surprise, women soon began taking the train from St. Louis to Lovejoy to receive her hair treatments and purchase her products.

To reach more customers, Malone relocated her business to St. Louis in 1902. Two years later, she successfully presented her products at the St. Louis World’s Fair. By this time, not only had her customer base increased but so had her sales force. She soon had thousands of agents in several states.

Malone had tapped into a profitable niche — Black women, many of whom were domestic workers and routinely used harsh cleaning chemicals and toxic hair products, all damaging to the hair and skin. At the same time, advertisements targeted Black women with messages telling them that straight hair was beautiful hair, and men desired women with beautiful hair and clear skin. These women wanted a better way to make a living and achieve beauty. Malone’s business offered them both.

While canvassing a neighborhood one afternoon, Malone knocked on the door of a woman named Sarah Breedlove Davis. A single mother who worked as a laundress, Davis stood before Malone with matted hair that was covered with dandruff and bald spots. When Malone treated Davis’ hair that day, little did she know that Davis, later known as Madam C.J. Walker, would become a fierce rival.

Walker was extremely driven and she quickly became Malone’s top agent. Then, after branching out to Denver, Colorado, and then to Indianapolis, Indiana, she emerged as a beauty mogul in her own right. In the process, she claimed some of Malone’s hair products and treatment processes as being her own creations. Walker even coined her signature product The Wonderful Hair Grower, a take on Malone’s original pomade. Walker claimed to have received her product ingredients in a dream.

After unsuccessfully trying to prevent Walker from using her formulas, while at the same time fighting off white-owned copycat businesses, Malone trademarked her enterprise in 1906 under the name, Poro. By this time, she formalized her Poro College in St. Louis and set up shop in a spacious brownstone, where she educated beauticians and trained agents under strict, contractual guidelines.

Poro grew into the finest direct-selling company of its time. Sadly, in the midst of her success, Malone’s beloved sister Laura died unexpectedly. Laura had been Malone’s biggest cheerleader and the person she could trust the most. There was now a void in her personal and professional life. Perhaps that’s what led her into a relationship with Aaron Malone, a childhood friend and a Bible salesman who’d moved to St. Louis. The couple married in April 1914.

Malone immediately named Aaron President of The Poro Company, while she maintained the title of Founder. The couple’s first undertaking was the construction of a larger building to house the growing company’s headquarters, ultimately investing $750,000. It was located in Elleardsville, also known as “The Ville,” one of the few areas in St. Louis where Black residents could own property.

From the time its doors opened in 1918 and for the next decade, the magnificent Poro Corner, as it was called, became a pillar in the community. The elaborate, three-story building contained everything Malone needed to run her business and serve the community.

The building housed the Malones’ living quarters, business offices, and Poro College, where Malone and her staff continued to train students and agents, even holding graduation ceremonies for them in the building’s 900-seat auditorium. Daily chapel services for Poro employees were also held there, as well as public events sponsored by local religious and social organizations. The building also housed guest rooms, dining facilities, and an ice cream parlor that was open to the public. Weddings and luncheons were often held on the building’s rooftop terrace where guests enjoyed fabulous meals that included bread and sweets made in the full-service bakery.

Poro Corner, St. Louis, MO via Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The company also owned a fleet of delivery trucks for the daily distribution of Poro products, which had expanded into an array of hair potions, skin creams, and powders. Because of Poro Corner, The Ville grew into a thriving, proud neighborhood.

By the early 1920s, Poro agents numbered 75,000. Malone traveled extensively to establish Poro Colleges across the country and at one point, 1,000 students were graduating each year from branches in several cities. She treated the 200 employees at her headquarters like family. All of the workers were Black and many were young, single mothers and high school students who didn’t have the opportunity to earn the same salary elsewhere in the city because of racial discrimination.

Underneath Malone’s all-business façade, she nurtured her staff and agents — teaching them lessons of self-empowerment and economic freedom. She guided them in purchasing real estate, and she awarded loyal, long-time employees with lavish gifts and cash bonuses.

Her benevolence didn’t stop with her Poro family.

Malone gave $10,000 to help build what was originally called the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home. She donated $25,000 each to the local YMCA/YWCA and to Howard University’s School of Medicine. She gave financial support to students at many black colleges and universities. And as she’d done from the beginning, she used Poro Corner to serve the community. That couldn’t have been needed more than on the day a deadly tornado ripped through St. Louis on September 29, 1927, killing 80 people, injuring hundreds more. To help the city’s recovery efforts, Malone worked with The American Red Cross to use her building as a shelter.

By this time, another storm had surfaced in Malone’s personal life. Her marriage to Aaron had fallen apart. While she’d been traveling around the country, leaving the day-to-day business operations to Aaron, he was pursuing political aspirations. The business was now struggling under a wave of mismanagement. As the couple became embroiled in a nasty divorce that played out in the newspapers, the public fight over Poro tarnished Malone’s reputation.

After reaching a settlement — and possibly needing to distance herself from the divorce spectacle — in 1930, Malone moved Poro Headquarters to Chicago where she’d been quietly purchasing property along South Parkway. She acquired an entire block of homes for her new Poro Block. Once a neighborhood of white multimillionaires, it had become a posh community for Black middle-class residents and black businesses.

Malone hoped the move would give Poro a fresh start and she worked diligently to regain the company’s glory. She engaged with the community, even sharing her company’s building with a flight school operated by Col. John C. Robinson, a black aviator who became her personal pilot. However, Poro never recovered from the legal fees of the Malones’ divorce. The company was also plagued with tax debts and several lawsuits from agents.

By the 1950s, Poro was competing against white-owned manufacturers who’d started producing hair products for black women and selling them in traditional retail outlets. Employees were leaving as integration expanded the employment opportunities for Black women.

Poro was headed towards bankruptcy and Malone, now up in age, was in poor health and had stopped traveling. In what was the final blow to Poro, the government seized much of the business’s property to pay its delinquent tax bills. By then, Malone’s health had greatly deteriorated. On May 10, 1957, she died of a stroke at Provident Hospital in Chicago. She was 87 years old and was reportedly worth only $100,000.

With no children of her own, Malone’s estate was divided among relatives. Some of her family members and loyal Poro agents were able to keep a handful of Poro College branches open, yet one by one, the beauty schools closed. The last Poro College shut its doors in 1989.

History has dimmed the story of Annie Malone; her image shattered by personal mishaps. Still, her enduring legacy is being kept alive by those who have been touched by her life, particularly the residents of The Ville and those at The Annie Malone Children & Family Services Center.

This May, the Center will organize the 110th Annie Malone May Day Parade in St. Louis. And just as in years past, as sporty cars, floats, marching bands, and local dignitaries make their way down the city’s main corridor, Annie Malone’s name will sound big— if only for an afternoon.

Writing a book and other things that I hope will decolonize your mind.

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