Updated: Feb 4, 2020
We continue to highlight Black entrepreneurs in the hair and skin care field. Even though their success resulted in massive fortunes, many of the people who have made significant contributions are not well known.
One such person is Sara Spencer Washington, founder of the Apex News and Hair company. She started an empire that included a beauty company, schools, products, nursing home and even a golf course. Like many Black cosmetic entrepreneurs she gave back to her community and paid it forward.
She was born June 6,1889 in Beckley, West Virginia. She attended grammar school in Beckley before going to Lincoln Prep in Philadelphia and back to Virginia at Norfolk Mission College. She also attended Columbia University where she studied advanced chemistry, which helped her when starting her cosmetic company.
In 1905 she earned a living as a dressmaker, which she did until 1913. That year she opened up a hair salon in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 1919 she founded Apex News and hair Company, which was the start of her empire. She worked in her one room hair salon during the day and circulated her products door to door at night.
She experimented with a variety of products aimed at Black American women, from pressing oils, hot combs, and pomades for hair. She even made perfumes, beauty creams and lipsticks, which many of her competitors at the time didn’t focus on.
She was quoted saying: “As long as there are women in the world, there will always be beauty establishments.” She proved this to be true by the increased demand for more cosmetic products and the abundance of cosmetic companies that were all doing well during these times.
Sara was able to grow her empire to include eleven different beauty schools both in the US and abroad, specializing in teaching how to sell and use her products. She created thousands of jobs. Her company employed more than 500 people in her stores and 45,000 sales people nationwide who sold Apex beauty products door to door.
Sara Spencer Washington was known for her belief that the beauty industry was depression proof. She emerged into the business after the world was reeling from World War I and continued to thrive and grow during the Great Depression. She used the slogan, which she coined “Now is the time to plan your future by learning a depression proof business.”
She became widely recognized in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair, she was honored as the “Most Distinguished Businesswomen.” This increased her business profile and status in the Black community as well as the status of Black American women. She became a millionaire and her empire expanded from the Apex Beauty Products Company to include the Apex Publishing Company, which published Apex News for her estheticians and sales agents, Apex Labs created her cosmetics and products, Apex Drug company and Apex Beauty Colleges. There was also the Apex Rest nursing home in Atlantic City, NJ and Apex Golf Club one of the first Black American owned golf courses in the U.S.
She gave back to her community, contributed 20 acres of farmland as a campsite for Black youth and gave an endowment of a home to the National Youth Administration Program for girls. Sara Spencer Washington died on March 23, 1953 leaving behind a legacy and conglomerate. She accomplished so much during times when women, especially Black women didn’t have many opportunities. She built an empire from nothing and like many of her contemporaries is an example of Black Excellence.
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