Annie Turnbo Malone (1869 – 1957)
Annie Turnbo Malone was one of the first African American women to become a millionaire. She developed hair and beauty products that appealed to many black women of her day. Annie founded a beauty college and supported black charities at a time when most black people had little money and few opportunities.
Annie Minerva Turnbo was born on August 9, 1869, on a farm in Metropolis in southern Illinois. She was the tenth of eleven children of Robert and Isabella Cook Turnbo. Unfortunately, Annie’s parents died when she was young, and Annie became an orphan. She lived with older brothers and sisters in Metropolis and farther north in Peoria. She was often sick and could not always attend school. While in high school, Annie discovered that she enjoyed studying chemistry.
Annie’s interest in chemistry led to a business in hair and beauty products. In 1900, Annie moved with an older sister to Lovejoy, Illinois, near St. Louis. There she developed and manufactured her own hair formula for African American women. She made her formula in the back of a small building, named it the “Wonderful Hair Grower,” and started selling it door to door. Women liked Annie’s hair formula. It was different from the goose fat, soap, and other oils they had been using to manage their hair. It did not damage their scalps like stronger products on the market did.
A Strategic Move to St. Louis
Annie’s hair care business was a success, and soon she started looking for ways to expand it. She noticed that the St. Louis economy was growing as the city got ready to host the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Expedition, or World’s Fair. Annie moved to St. Louis in 1902 and by 1904 opened her first shop at 2223 Market Street. She was eager to sell her hair and beauty products to the many tourists who were coming to the World’s Fair. In 1906, Annie protected her products under the trade name Poro. The word poro is a West African term for “physical and spiritual fulfillment.” By 1910, the business needed larger facilities so Annie moved it to 3100 Pine Street. Four years later, Poro was one of the largest black businesses in St. Louis, Missouri.
Annie married Aaron E. Malone, a high school principal in St. Louis, in 1914. He helped her run her company. By 1918, Annie was worth over a million dollars. She opened Poro College, a multipurpose facility that featured a beauty college to which black beauticians from all over the country came for instruction and training. It also had a dormitory, a manufacturing plant, a store for Poro hair and cosmetic products, business offices, a five-hundred-seat auditorium, a roof garden, and dining and meeting rooms that were used by different community organizations. Poro College became an important social center for African Americans in the “Ville” neighborhood of St. Louis.
Successful Businesswoman and Donor
Annie Malone was a generous and caring businesswoman. She made sure that her employees, mostly black, were paid well and given opportunities for advancement. She also gave large sums of money to different educational and charitable institutions around the country. In St. Louis, she focused her attention and money on the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home, perhaps because she had been an orphan herself. Annie served as the president of the board of directors of this home from 1919 to 1943. It was renamed the Annie Malone Children’s Home in 1946 because of her great support and leadership.
Annie established branches of Poro College in fifteen major cities in the United States. She was a multi-millionaire by 1924 and drove one of the first Rolls-Royce cars in St. Louis. In 1927, however, Annie’s fortune took a downward turn. A troubled divorce and the stock market crash that started the Great Depression of the 1930s put Annie’s empire at risk. In 1930, Annie moved the Poro headquarters to Chicago. She kept her business running, though her fortune was much smaller. Annie continued to support charities in St. Louis and around the country for the rest of her life.
Annie Malone enriched the lives of many black people. She created jobs, rewarded hard-working employees, and shared her wealth with millions of African Americans. She died in Chicago on May 10, 1957. Even after her death, Annie Malone’s legacy lives on. Every May, the Annie Malone Children’s Home in St. Louis, now named the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center, celebrates and honors the life of this great businesswoman. The street on which the center is located was renamed Annie Malone Drive in her honor.
Research and Text by Carlynn Trout
Christensen, Lawrence O. et al, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 517–18.
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 vols. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Vol. 1: 81.