Annie Malone’s story is a classic pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative, the kind Americans love to tell. But the heart of her story reveals something more: a woman’s commitment to her community and her efforts to pull others up with her.
Born Annie Turnbo on August 9, 1869, she was the second-youngest child of a large family. Her parents, who had previously been enslaved, died when she was still very young, so she was raised by an older sister in Peoria, Illinois.
Malone’s generosity to her employees and the community was well known.
As Turnbo was growing up, many black women and girls were dealing with hair loss, brittleness, scalp disease, and hair damage from stress, illness, and the harsh chemicals and techniques marketed to straighten black hair. Wanting to remedy this, the young entrepreneur experimented on her sisters and their friends, developing mixtures to not only encourage hair growth and health but also soothe and reverse chemical burns and scalp disease.
With a burgeoning reputation for good results and a perfected recipe for her “Wonderful Hair Grower,” Turnbo moved to Brooklyn, Illinois, an African American town popularly known as Lovejoy after the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy. She launched her business by marketing her product door to door and recruiting locals to advertise its success.
As news spread about the upcoming 1904 World’s Fair, Turnbo must have seen a tremendous opportunity for her new business. She moved to St. Louis in 1902 and continued her strategy of hiring local agents. One of those agents started selling her own hair-growth elixir under her married name, Madam C. J. Walker, and became extremely successful in her own right. To protect her business from what she termed “imitation products,” Turnbo copyrighted her Poro trademark in 1906.
Through ad campaigns, press conferences, and a tour of the South to train women as Poro agents, Poro hair-care and skin-care products became even more popular. Their most distinguishing feature? An emphasis on African hairstyles and black beauty, compared to other products that focused on straightening hair and lightening skin to adhere to white beauty ideals.
Certain Poro ads also emphasized opportunities for black women to earn income, gain independence, and build self-esteem as Poro agents. Others showed Turnbo’s appreciation for Poro customers.
Turnbo acquired the surname she would come to be known by in 1914 when she married Aaron Malone, a traveling salesman and former teacher. The couple later divorced, but the Poro founder kept the name.
By 1918, construction began on Poro College, near the new location for Sumner High School in the Ville neighborhood. In addition to serving as the headquarters for manufacturing and shipping Poro products, the college was a training center for Poro sales agents.
The campus included dormitories, emergency-first-aid rooms, and a cafeteria just for students. A 500-seat auditorium, committee rooms, and rooftop garden were open for public use. Poro College frequently hosted displays by black artists, concerts by black musicians, conferences, meetings, banquets, charity benefits, and weddings. (Later on, as part of the Gaines v. Canada settlement, Poro College became the home of Lincoln University Law School.)
As the first African American woman to become a multi-millionaire, Malone’s generosity was well known. She helped her employees with mortgages and rewarded workers who bought homes for their parents and siblings. She even gave Poro agents diamond rings to mark their fifth anniversaries. Black institutions, including the St. James AME Church, the Pine Street YWCA, and Howard University Medical School, received large donations from Malone. At one point the St. Louis Argus reported that she had financially supported at least two students at every African American land–grant college in the nation.
Malone also donated land and money to the St. Louis Colored Orphan’s Home and assisted the institution in moving to its permanent location on Goode Avenue (later renamed Annie Malone Drive). She served as president of the board for the Orphan’s Home for nearly 25 years, from 1919 to 1943.
Financial difficulties eventually led Malone to move her Poro headquarters to Chicago, but she returned to St. Louis every year for the annual May Day parade, a fundraiser for the Orphan’s Home. In 1946 the institution was officially renamed the Annie Malone Children’s Home.
Malone passed away in 1957, and the site of her business venture was eventually replaced with residences. Although the Poro empire itself didn’t survive, Malone’s legacy of philanthropy and community building lives on here in St. Louis.