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Annie Turnbo Pope Malone
The First Poro Building
The hot combs--some of her products
*** Legends ***"Though her name was not well known, she left a rich legacy"
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
When this "Legends" column was created, the idea was to highlight Black Americans and Africans whose works were not well known, yet they blazed a trail and left a lasting legacy that has impacted and helped others move toward the advancement of human progress throughout the ages to the present. Even though some of those named in the past "Legends" were well-known household names, others were not so well known. This is a story of the latter.
When Annie Turnbo Pope Malone died in Chicago in May 1957, "Poro Beauty Colleges" still operated in over 30 cities across the nation. During her lifetime, she had successfully copyrighted the trade name "Poro," the brand name of her beauty products. During the late 19th century, many Black women used soap, goose fat, and heavy oils to straighten their hair. Chemical straighteners often damaged the scalp and hair follicles. While living in Lovejoy, Illinois, and relying on personal experience, Malone developed a chemical product that straightened African American hair without damage. Though unconfirmed, she was said to have studied chemistry and to have been influenced by an aunt who was trained as an herbal doctor. Malone expanded her hair care product line to include other beauty products, including her own "Wonderful Hair Grower." She is also credited with developing a version of the pressing iron and comb, which she sold locally along with the rest of her hair care and beauty products.
Born in August, 1869 in Metropolis, Illinois, as Annie Minerva Turnbo, to parents who were former slaves, she was the tenth of 11 children of Robert Turnbo, an indigent farmer and Isabella Cook. Her father had joined the Union Army during the Civil War. Known then as Turnbo, she attended school in Peoria, Illinois, but she never finished high school; frequent illness caused her to withdraw before she finished. Her parents died when she was young and Turnbo turned to hairdressing, as her only viable skill, with her older sister, her surrogate parent. Then the family moved to Lovejoy, Illinois, where Turnbo began developing her skills in fashioning hair care and beauty products; she had found her niche, a "beauty care specialist." (And as a consequence of the era, her market was exclusively Black women). At the age of 20 she developed her own shampoo and scalp treatment to grow and straighten hair which she literally took to the streets, going around in a buggy making speeches to demonstrate and promote her new product(s).
As a young girl, Turnbo enjoyed fashioning her own and her sisters' hair as she became proficient in the science of hair texture differences even though focus of her study was restricted to Black people. As her business thrived, Turnbo ventured into new market territory; in 1902, she moved to St. Louis, Missouri, home of the nation's fourth largest African-American population, to expand her business. There she hired and trained three assistants: Black women, who sold the products door-to-door and provided free demonstrations.
The traditional marketing and distributing systems were not available to Turnbo via her assistants, so she had to use direct approach. One of her protégés was Sarah Breedlove who later became Madame C.J. Walker. In 1903, she married Mr. Pope and became Annie Turnbo- Pope. Because of her husband's tendency to interfere with her business, the marriage did not last very long; she divorced him but continued using the name, Pope.
The following year, Turnbo-Pope opened a booth at the St. Louis World's Fair where her products were overwhelmingly received and it gave her the confidence to expand her marketing and distributing efforts nationally. These efforts complemented her existing door-to-door marketing program in addition to regular Sunday morning visits to Black churches and evening visits to community centers, providing free hair and scalp treatments.
As previously explained, the racial climate of the time severely restricted not only her market but also her ability to use all of the resources that were available to others. In a limited, though successful way, Turnbo-Pope tried press conferences and advertised in Black newspapers--the latter was a strain on her financially. It would have shrunk her profit margin dramatically. She traveled throughout the South and sometimes encountered racial hostility and violence, but doggedly pursued her goals, giving demonstrations in Black churches and (Black) women's clubs. Turnbo-Pope hired and trained women wherever she went to serve as local sales agents in an early version of network marketing. They in turn, recruited others, and by the end of the decade, she had a national distribution network.
There is a section in almost every state where the wealthy, like any group with cultural and social similarities, names their own space or neighborhood. That historic area around St. Louis was called the Ville and it was home to individuals from diverse cultures including the wealthy landowners, doctors, lawyers, teachers, influential politicians and a Black businesswoman, Turnbo-Pope; most of the residents there were White. In most respects, it was a microcosm of the neighborhoods that were springing up throughout the nation. It had seen wars, migrations from the South, the results of landmark Supreme Court cases, the fight for civil rights and the achievement of individuals against difficult odds. Using her upward mobility in business as a stepping stone, Turnbo-Pope was ideally suitable for the neighborhood, and she and her business blended in comfortably.
Situated northwest of downtown St. Louis, covering a nine-by-five block area the Ville was about eight percent Black when Turnbo-Pope moved in. In a ten-year span, it jumped to 86 percent Black, and as the national, racial trend dictated, as Black folks moved in, White folks moved out. Her experiences in business had alerted her to those demographic changes and she used it to her advantage. Buying and selling 'black' was a business reality for Turnbo-Pope. The neighborhood even had its first school for Black children--segregated of course--that was initially named Elleardsville Colored School--Elleardsville was the name from which the Ville had been extracted. It was later changed to Simmons School.
At that time, Turnbo-Pope was the most famous resident of the Ville and she led the way in establishing Black institutions. The name she trademarked for her business in 1906 was "Poro." (it was a West African word for an organization dedicated to disciplining and enhancing the body spiritually and physically). She had the Poro Products for her hair care and beauty products; the Poro System, for her merchandising, distributing and marketing systems; built her own million-dollar building named the Poro Building; and established the Poro Colleges of Beauty Culture to teach and train students about the hair care, beauty salon and sales business. Her goal was to produce a sales force network of agents to spread the Poro System.
Circumstances forced her to commit her efforts, energies and resources primarily to the Black community in general and to Black women in particular. Turnbo-Pope also realized that since race played an important part in her business network, she also taught positive self-image and deportment classes as a way to increase social standing and upward mobility in the community. The Poro Building served as a meeting place for St. Louis' Blacks since they were often denied access to other venues. There Turnbo-Pope housed her business office, product manufacturing operation, in addition to classrooms, barbershops, hairdressing salons, laboratories and a community center. The building provided a meeting place for civic, religious and social functions and it also had an auditorium, dining facilities, a theater, gymnasium, a chapel and a roof garden. Local and national organizations would often use the complex for business functions and meetings.
The Poro Building became an important symbol of African American enterprises and it may have expedited the white flight since it was located in the middle of the Ville and near another 'segregated' high school. At a time when few career opportunities were available, to Blacks in general, the Poro brand offered them a chance at economic independence. Turnbo-Pope believed that if African American women improved their physical appearance, they would gain greater self-respect and achieve success in other areas of their lives. She gave them that chance. Within the Poro Empire, there was also room Black men; they assisted in building and maintaining the building(s) and accompanying jobs that as Turnbo-Pope's businesses grew, employment opportunities were created.
In 1914, Turnbo-Pope married Aaron Eugene Malone and became Annie Turnbo-Pope-Malone; he became the president and chief manager of the company. The couple did more than just manufacture beauty products; they provided a model of lifestyle improvement for African Americans regardless of their standing in society. (Some historians have indicated that Madame C.J. Walker was one of Malone's assistants and she may have given Walker her start in the beauty and hair care business. Also, it was reported that a discrepancy between Malone and Walker propelled Malone to trademark the "Poro" brand in 1906. Both women however, have contributed generously to the progress of Black businesses and have left lasting legacies).
As her fortunes grew, so did her contribution to the upliftment of others, and her philanthropy. Malone contributed generously to the St. Louis Colored Orphanage and the St. James A.M.E. Church and lobbied to have the streets in the Ville paved. In 1922, the orphanage was relocated to the Ville, it was renamed "Annie Malone Children's Home," in her honor. Malone is remembered as a generous philanthropist, a civic leader, and one of the most successful African American entrepreneurs in the city's history.
By1926, the Poro College system had employed 175 people with outlets in North and South America, Africa, and the Philippines, and employees totaling some 75,000 women. Though Malone's wealth was estimated at $14 million, she did not live a lavish lifestyle; instead she gave away much of her fortune to help other African Americans. She is one of America's first major Black philanthropists donating large sums to countless charities. At one time, it is believed that she was supporting two full-time students in every Black land-grant college in the United States. Malone gave $25,000 to the Howard University Medical School, the largest gift the school had ever received from an African American, to the Tuskegee Institute and $25,000 to help build the St. Louis YWCA.
Her generosity became legendary. Malone was also generous with family and employees, sending many of her nieces and nephews to college and buying homes for her brothers and sisters. She awarded employees financially for punctuality, loyalty for service anniversaries. However, as her generosity raised her stature, it distracted her from the day-to-day operation of the business that she had built. She depended solely on others, including her husband, and because of mismanagement, her business empire began to crumble.
Malone and her husband became embroiled in a six-year legal battle over the control of the business until he filed for a divorce in 1927 and demanded half of the business. At the end, Malone was allowed to keep the business and garnered a settlement of $200,000. She moved the business to Chicago in 1930 to a location that became known as the Poro Block, but was never able to regain the financial and business footing that she had in St. Louis. A multitude of lawsuits in 1937 and debts to the government for unpaid real estate and excise taxes further weighed her down. She was forced to sell the St. Louis property and by 1943, Malone had owed the government $100,000. In 1951, the debt was so overwhelming that the government took control of Poro and sold most of it for taxes.
When she died in May 1957 in Chicago, Malone was 87. She had become virtually unknown in the business community, had lost most of her money and her estate, valued at $100,000, went to her nieces and nephews.
However, she is listed in "Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 13"; "Notable American Women: The Modern Period"; and "Notable Black American Women."
A blogger recently commented: Finally, someone is giving recognition to Annie Turnbo Pope Malone, who has been almost removed from Black history. She played an important role as an entrepreneur, businesswoman, and philanthropist such that had it not been for Annie Malone, there would be no Madame C.J. Walker. I am making it my life's mission to honor Mrs. Malone by getting her name out to the public, as it well deserves to be. Thanks for writing the article about Annie Malone. Black Americans, particularly those in Black hair care, deserve to know the truth about how it all began.