On August 9, 1869 Annie Minerva Turnbo was born in Metropolis, Minnesota to parents Robert and Isabella Turnbo. The tenth of eleven children of former slaves, she and her family lived on a farm until her parents died, she was then raised by an older sister in the nearby city of Peoria, Illinois. As a child Annie endured a lot of illnesses causing her to miss many days of school, as a result she did not complete high school. Despite her setbacks, Annie’s spirit was not broken; little did she know she was about to change the world one hair follicle at a time. She became interested in hair care while becoming the stylist for herself and he sisters. She learned that different people can have different textures of hair; particularly she became interested in the different textures of hair that African-American women possessed. She notices that African-American women at the time were interested in straightening their hair in a way that wouldn’t damage their hair. While living in Brooklyn, Illinois Annie used her knowledge of chemistry and natural herbs to create a straightening product for African-Americans that did not damage their hair and scalp. Before she created her product people used various harmful chemicals and animal fats to straighten their hair.
Because of the success of her straightening solution, she was able to open a storefront in Brooklyn, Illinois and continue to build her brand. Her next move was to introduce her new product “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower,” she also developed and introduced the straightening comb to the haircare industry; something she is rarely credited for. Annie would move her business to St. Louis, Missouri in 1902 where she would begin hiring and training assistants to work with her. Because of their race Annie and her assistants did not have access to the traditional distributions systems of the day. That did not deter Ms. Annie, she began selling her products door to door providing demonstrations and educating her clients about her products. Because of her efforts Annie and her products found success and a legend was born. Her “Poro” hair styling method was in demand and becoming a thriving business. She named her products and her enterprise “Poro” after a West African devotional society dedicated to health and spiritual growth through discipline. She would copyright her Poro brand to protect her name as her products become more and more popular amongst African-Americans in St, Louis. Annie was very ambitious and confident in her products so she decided to sell her product nationally.
She traveled throughout the south stopping at black churches and community centers holding demonstrations and gaining customers. She would also hold press conferences and take out ads in black newspapers to promote her Poro brand. A part of her strategy was to recruit and train Poro agents throughout the country to help promote her brand and grow her industry. A little known fact is that Madame C.J. Walker was one of Annie’s recruits who later became very successful in the haircare industry. It is said that Annie was upset at Walker for developing products very similar to hers after learning from her as an agent. Walker’s products led Annie to copyrighting her Poro brand and products. Madame C.J. Walker is often credited with being the pioneer of the black haircare industry and the creator of the pressing comb; but it was Annie Malone who first created the industry and the pressing comb, which gave Walker the knowledge and the platform to create her products. In 1914 Annie married Mr. Aaron Malone a school principle and ex bible salesman who would help her realize her dreams even further. The Malone’s dedicated themselves to empowering the people in their community, in 1918 they opened Poro College at place where African-American’s can gain an education and skills to build an industry for themselves. The college served as a meeting center for the black community, and it also provided a thorough education in the hair care and beauty industry. Both males and females were allowed to learn at the college which was valued to be worth over one million dollars.
Annie was a very generous person; her success meant others would benefit from her blessings. Her college employed 175 people, her industry employed 75,000 women internationally; her net worth was valued at fourteen million dollars in the 1920’s. She was known for living a modest life and giving away large sums of her money. Annie was known for supporting the college fund for two students at every Historically Black College & University in the country. She donated $25,000 to Howard Medical School during the 1920’s and also donated money to Tuskegee Institute. She gave $25,000 to help build a YMCA for black children in St. Louis, Missouri; she would give her employees and family gifts of money and assets to help them buy land and build wealth. She raised money for the reconstruction of an orphanage for black children which was renamed the Annie Malone Home. Despite her generosity, Annie was a victim of financial ruin. The inexperience of her financial team led to a loss of money, assets and a legal fight to retain their Poro enterprise. During the turmoil Aaron Malone filed for divorce and demanded half of the business. Annie received support from her workers, customers, the press and Madame C.J. Walker which helped her to retain her business. Annie moved to Chicago in 1930 but continued to face financial troubles, lawsuits and tax problems.
The Poro enterprise eventually folded and the legend of Annie Malone faded with her business. Annie died at the age of 87 in 1957 having lost the legacy that she built. Madame C.J. Walker would go on to become known as the pioneer to the black haircare industry and first African-American female millionaire. Truth be told, if it were not for Annie Malone the black haircare industry would not exist. Annie Malone used her god given abilities and the skills she acquired from her Aunt and her chemistry background to create a hair straightening product that would literally change her life. Poro College was a training ground for many successful African-Americans who were able to provide the world with their talents. Mrs. Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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