Annie Minerva Turnbo was tenth of eleven children, born August 9, 1869, in Metropolis (now known as Brooklyn), Illinois. She was orphaned at an early age and raised by elder sisters. During her early years, she lived for a time in Lovejoy, Illinois.
Often ill, her attendance at school was sporadic. She had a keen interest in chemistry, however, and enjoyed creating potions and treatments to heal the damaged scalps and hair of family and friends. As Annie matured, she expressed an interest in making hair care her life’s work and was met with much distain from her family. Despite their concern, Annie was able to develop her own formulas and processes to protect the scalp and clean hair.
Prior to the efforts of Annie Malone, women of color had few options to groom their hair. They used goose grease, lye and soaps made with other animal fats. Initially using a door-to-door method to demonstrate and sell her products, Malone left Lovejoy, anticipating the boost the 1902 World’s Fair could give her business. The Fair was postponed to 1904. In the meantime, she toured the South and revolutionized her plans. Upon her return to St. Louis, she held a press conference with all the Negro press and announced her plan to develop new marketing strategies and to open a school, the Poro College. This school was to teach legions of women how to walk, talk, dress, use her products, keep their books and market what was to be the “PORO” brand.
In 1918, despite restrictive housing covenants, prior to the right of any women to vote and segregation rampant in our society, Annie Malone opened the three-story building known as the Poro College. The complex cost $750,000 to build and included classrooms, beauty shops, laboratories, an auditorium, conference rooms, a gentlemen’s smoking parlor, cafeteria, dining halls, ice cream parlor, bakery, emergency hospital, a theater, gymnasium, chapel, rooftop garden, general offices, shipping department, manufacturing plant, laundry, seamstress shop, dormitories and guest rooms.
Several of the articles found about the life of Annie Malone tell of her outstanding philanthropy. She was most generous in her effort to “uplift her race.” She was always interested in the latest innovations and opportunities to improve the lives of African American women. Annie Malone served on a variety of auxiliaries and boards and was very involved as a proud Republican in the Women’s Temperance Movement, the Delta-Sigma Theta Sorority and the National Council of Negro Women. She donated property to establish the Ellardsville (now known as the historic “Ville” neighborhood) Boys Club. She donated $25,000 toward the building of the Pine Street YMCA; $25,000 to the Howard University Medical School; $2,000 annually in support of student scholarships at various Land Grant Colleges for African Americans throughout the United States, including Wilberforce University, Tuskegee Institute and Bethune-Cookman College. She served as board president of the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home from 1919 to 1943 and contributed the land, valued at $10,000 that served as the first permanent home for orphaned children of color in St. Louis. In 1946, the children’s home changed the name of the facility to honor her service and continues to operate today as the Annie Malone Children & Family Service Center. An annual parade is still conducted as a fundraising opportunity to provide financial support for the center that bears her name. She contributed $10,000 to help establish the St. Louis Maternity Hospital making it possible for women of color to have their children at the network of hospitals now known as Barnes Jewish Hospital.
Annie Malone also demonstrated her commitment to uplifting her race as she financed and promoted the development and distribution of Poro movies. She dispatched photographers and film makers throughout the United States for the express purpose of filming people, places and things that showed firsthand the capabilities and excellence of colored people. She utilized a network of churches, community centers, and social clubs to disseminate this information despite the very negative tenor of the day.
After a very ugly and public divorce, Annie Malone moved to Chicago, Illinois. She purchased three mansions (all in a row) in a wealthy part of town and started her hair care and cosmetic empire all over again.
Mrs. Malone traveled all over the United States and the world promoting her hair care and beauty products. At the time of her death, she had an international sales force and was considered a multi – millionaire. Her beauty empire consisted of 75,000 sales agents across the globe. There were Poro agents in 32 states within the United States, Haiti and the Philippines. Mrs. Malone had no children of her own and died in Chicago in May of 1957.
Linda M. Nance is President of the Annie Malone Historical Society and co-founded the Call to Conscience Readers Theatre Group. Linda is a published author, with articles in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, as well as the Missouri Historical Society’s quarterly publication. Her poems have been published in the Harvest Moon Anthology, and book reviews in the Sister’s Ninety Literary Journal. Linda also serves as an Oasis instructor.