The legacy of Annie Turnbo Malone (1869–1957) has been lost to many over the years, but this entrepreneurial woman’s historical importance in the hair care industry is undeniable.
According to the Freeman Institute, “If you are in the African American hair care or cosmetics industry, Annie is the ‘mother’ of what you are doing.”1
From creating a successful line of hair care products to opening the first cosmetology school focused on training Black hair specialists, Malone’s accomplishments helped her become one of the richest Black women in the US at the time.2
Debate has surrounded who was the first pioneer to create commercial hair-straightening products for the Black consumer, but historians say the record is clear: Malone “developed the first successful formulas . . . aimed at straightening African American hair without damaging it; historical data indicates that Malone was indeed the true groundbreaker.”3
Malone, the daughter of formerly enslaved parents, was orphaned at an early age.4 She went to live with one of her sisters, and eventually worked alongside her as a hairdresser.
Maybe it was Malone’s own frustration, or that of her clients, but after years of straightening hair with goose fat, bacon grease, soap, and other oils (as was the norm in the day), and with many consumer products on the market proving damaging to her and her clients’ hair and scalps, the young entrepreneur set out to create her own line of hair care products. By 1900, Malone had formulated Wonderful Hair Grower, which she demonstrated and sold throughout Illinois from the back of her horse and buggy. Some historians also credit Malone with developing the pressing iron and comb around this same time.5
Building a Legacy
By 1902, Malone took her business to St. Louis ahead of the 1904 World’s Fair. She hired three assistants, and the team sold hair care products door to door and in Black churches and community centers. Free demonstrations were the groundswell for creating brand awareness, word-of-mouth advertising, and consumer demand for Malone’s game-changing products that focused on healthier scalps.
It was during this time in St. Louis that Madame C. J. Walker (who would become an equally important woman in the hair profession) became a client of Malone’s, seeking help for scalp issues. Walker eventually became a member of Malone’s successful sales force, but there was a falling out between mentor and mentee; this led to Walker moving to Denver to begin a competitive (and similarly named) hair care product line and Malone rebranding her product line and trademarking its new name—Poro.
The word poro is a West African term that means “an organization whose aim is to discipline and enhance the body in both physical and spiritual form.”6 It’s clear that Malone aligned her new product name with her mission. According to Proterra Cosmetics, Malone’s goods were “created with African American women in mind, a market that was generally overlooked at the time. She skillfully advertised her items by employing other saleswomen to go door to door and provide demonstrations.”7 But Malone also saw her work as part of a bigger picture—one grounded in self-help and personal dignity.8
With Malone’s business based in a city that possessed one of the largest Black populations in America at the time, Poro continued to thrive. Malone used sound business practices to propel her brand, and often used press conferences and advertisements in Black newspapers to help reach her audience.
Author Patty Wetli wrote, “Malone may not be a household name today, but the line of Poro hair care products that she invented—revolutionary straighteners and oils that didn’t damage the scalp—were once a staple in African American households, sold door to door by Poro’s network of agents . . . Adjusting for inflation, her fortune would be worth $186 million in today’s dollars.”9
In 1918, Malone took her next step and opened Poro College in St. Louis, the “first cosmetology school geared toward training specialists for African American hair.”10 But the school provided more than just cosmetology training—it also became a place for members of the Black community to gather. In addition to the dormitory and teaching facilities, the campus also included a chapel, auditorium, dining hall, bakery, ice cream parlor, laboratories, laundry service, a manufacturing plant for Poro products, and a rooftop garden. In addition, the campus housed the headquarters of several local and national African American organizations, including the National Negro Business League.
Malone’s curriculum brought Black beauticians from across the country for “instruction in Black hair and skin care—training that would provide them with the foundation to establish their own beauty care businesses.”11 It is reported that Malone believed poise and appearance were as crucial to success for her graduates as hair care knowledge, so these things became important parts of the curriculum Poro College offered.12
By 1926, the college employed 175 people, while franchised outlets for Poro in North and South America, Africa, and the Philippines employed some 75,000 women; by the 1950s, there were 32 branches of Malone’s school across the US.13 An interesting celebrity footnote: One of the most notable students to come out of the Poro College was not-yet-famous musician Chuck Berry, who followed in his sisters’ footsteps by enrolling in Malone’s cosmetology training.14
A Philanthropist and So Much More
Throughout her career, Malone made giving back to her community a priority. The school and business complexes she created are perfect illustrations of this ethos. She also was instrumental in providing financial assistance to many organizations, including the St. Louis Orphans Home (later renamed the Annie Malone Children and Family Services), Howard University, and Tuskegee Institute, to name a few.
In 1930, the Poro headquarters relocated from St. Louis to Chicago to be closer to its consumer base, and Malone built a new complex combining business, education, and community. But Malone’s personal and financial struggles took a toll on the business. Some blame a contentious divorce, tax oversights, and Malone’s devout philanthropic habits for draining her business; despite her company’s wild successes in earlier years, at the time of her death in 1957, Malone’s estate was valued at $100,000.15
Regardless of the state of her businesses in the end, it’s without doubt that what Malone left behind was lasting. She taught generations of Black women to expect more—both in the consumer products they purchased, and in the career pathways and opportunities available to them.
1. The Freeman Institute, “Who Was One of Madam C. J. Walker’s Most Important Role Models?” accessed February 2024, https://freemaninstitute.com/poro.htm.
2. “Annie Malone,” Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 13 (Gale, 1996), accessed January 2024.
3. “Annie Malone,” Contemporary Black Biography.
4. WoodrowWilsonHouse.org, “Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone,” accessed January 2024, www.woodrowwilsonhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/African-American-I...
5. “Annie Turnbo Malone,” Encyclopedia of World Biography Online, vol. 23 (Gale, 2003), accessed January 2024.
6. “Annie Malone,” Contemporary Black Biography.
7. Proterra Cosmetics, “Annie Malone Hair Care Products,” accessed January 2024, www.proterracosmetics.com/blogs/news/annie-malone-hair-care-products.
8. Nadra Nittle, Vox, “Meet Annie Turnbo Malone, the Hair Care Entrepreneur Trump Shouted Out in His Black History Month Proclamation,” February 15, 2019, www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/2/15/18226396/annie-turnbo-malone-hair-entrep...
9. Patty Wetli, Book Club Chicago, “Annie Malone Was a Millionaire Black Hair Icon Whose Mansions Were Listed in The Green Book—But Her Legacy Is Often Overlooked,” February 21, 2019, https://blockclubchicago.org/2019/02/21/annie-malones-poro-college-a-gre...
10. “Annie Malone,” Contemporary Black Biography.
11. Patty Wetli, Book Club Chicago, “Annie Malone Was a Millionaire Black Hair Icon Whose Mansions Were Listed in The Green Book—But Her Legacy Is Often Overlooked.”
12. “Annie Malone,” Contemporary Black Biography.
13. “Annie Turnbo Malone,” Encyclopedia of World Biography Online.
14. Bruce Pegg, Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry (Psychology Press, 2002): 20–22.
15. “Annie Turnbo Malone,” Encyclopedia of World Biography Online.