Annie Turnbo Malone

Updated: Feb 4, 2020

Today we’re covering the Black American businesswoman Annie Turnbo Malone. Aside from being a businesswoman, she was an innovator in the hair care industry with her inventive hair products for Black women and the Black community as a whole. She was one of the first Black Americans who became a millionaire after founding not only a beauty empire but also a large and prominent commercial and educational enterprise for Black women.

Annie was born August 9, 1877 in southern Illinois, to enslaved Robert and Isabella Turnbo. Her mother escaped slavery in Kentucky after her father went to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Isabella took their children and used the Ohio River to travel to Metropolis, Illinois. It was here that Annie, the ninth of ten children was born.

At a young age she lost both of her parents and settled in Peoria, Illinois, she was taken in by one of her older sisters. Her interest in chemistry was born while in high school and it was this interest that would lead to her future successful endeavors and propel her as an entrepreneur. She had to withdraw from classes because of frequent illness, but used this time out of school to practice her skill of hairdressing with her relatives. This fascination led to an expertise in both chemistry and hair care which led to her developing her own products. 

At this time, women used harmful products on their scalp which caused damage because of what was available. Things like goose fat, heavy oils, harsh soaps and bacon grease were used to straighten hair, but is extremely harmful. Annie’s goal was to change that. 

The  early 1900’s was a pivotal time for Annie. She moved to Brooklyn, Illinois (at the time called Lovejoy) where she expanded her business, experimenting with different hair care techniques and manufacturing her own line of products of hair straighteners, special oils and hair stimulant products for Black women. She marketed her products as the “Wonderful Hair Grower” and sold them door to door, one of the first to do this in the beauty industry and the Black community. Her methods were revolutionary for all African Americans, especially those that built their own cosmetic empires after her.  

Her business grew rapidly as she moved to St. Louis. The area was thriving, she hired a few assistants to sell her products door to door. She would give away free samples, so people could use them, see the benefits, and in turn attract more customers. The marketing tactic worked as demand became higher for her products. So high that she was able to open up her first shop in 1902. She put ads in all the Black press, held news conferences and toured many of the southern states, recruiting women to sell her products wherever she went and growing her customer base.

Interestingly, one of her proteges was a woman by the name of Sarah Breedlove a.k.a Madam C.J. Walker. Walker was one of Malone’s sales agents who operated in Denver, CO. A disagreement led to Walker leaving and starting her own line of products, making her a very wealthy woman as well. It is said that she actually took Annie Malone’s original formula, which was known as the “Poro Formula,” and started her own brand with it. Because of this, Annie Malone began to copyright her products under the “Poro” name because of what she called fraudulent imitations or copycats of her life’s work. The name “Poro” is a combo of the married names of Annie Pope which was the last name of her first husband, and her sister Laura Roberts. 

Her business continued to grow and in 1910 she moved to an even bigger location in St. Louis, which contained facilities for a beauty college, named Poro College, a manufacturing plant, retail store, where her products where sold, business offices, a 500 seat auditorium, dining and conference rooms, a roof garden, dorms, a gym, a bakery and a chapel. It was the center of social functions for the Black elite as well as the Black community as a whole.

Annie Malone created jobs for thousands of people, especially Black women. Poro College trained its students on everything from how to sell and use the products, to their personal style for work, including walking, talking and dressing. The college employed over 200 people in St. Louis, and through franchise businesses 75,000 jobs were created for women in North America, South America, Africa and the Philippines. She always ensured that all her employees, all African American, were well paid and had unlimited opportunities to advance. 

By the 1920s she was a multi millionaire. She gave back to the Black community in many ways. Such as giving thousands to the local Black YMCA and Howard University College of Medicine in Washington DC. She gave money and a home to the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home where she was President of the board from 1919-1943. The home was named in her honor for her work and donations. 

By the late 1920s she had a few setbacks. She got divorced from her second husband Aaron Eugene Malone, who was a teacher and religious book salesmen. He served as the President of the company and demanded half of the business, claiming his ideas are what made it the success that it was. Annie Malone, with the help of Mary McLeod Bethune and other powerful Black leaders worked out a settlement of $200,000 to prevent Poro College from remaining in a court ordered receivership. She was able to keep complete ownership of the business she started, since she was already established and a millionaire by the time she married Aaron Malone. 

After the divorce was granted, Annie Malone didn’t allow it to slow her down. She moved to Chicago, where she bought an entire city block to continue her business. But still other setbacks in the form of lawsuits occurred. Others claimed credit for the success of the Poro empire. Whenever this happened, she would fund it by selling a property that she owned. One such occasion was in 1937 during the Depression when a former employee tried to sue her for credit of the companies success. Despite these minor obstacles, her business continued to thrive, although smaller in size. 

Annie Malone continued her business until 1957 when she suffered a stroke. She died on May 10, 1957 at Provident Hospital in Chicago. Since she never had any children, she left what was left of her fortune to her nieces and nephews. 

Born into slavery to building an empire from the ground up and still continuing to thrive despite many obstacles during her lifetime, Annie Malone is an inspiration to us all. Her legacy lives on to this day, and she is truly an example of Black Excellence.



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