One of the first black women to reach millionaire status did so by launching a hair care empire — and her name wasn’t Madam C.J. Walker. Entrepreneur Annie Turnbo Malone reached this milestone at the end of World War I, and she just so happened to give beauty mogul Walker her start in the cosmetics industry.
Since her 1957 death, however, Malone’s tremendous achievements have been widely overlooked. John H. Whitfield, the author of the biography A Friend to All Mankind: Mrs. Annie Turnbo Malone and Poro College, spoke to Vox about Malone’s work and legacy.
“Mrs. Malone’s legacy is a merging of women’s health and economic independence,” Whitfield said.
After starting a hair care line inspired by Malone’s products, Walker became one of the wealthiest Americans of the early 1900s. She’s since become a staple of Black History Month lessons, and there’s a Netflix show in the works about her life starring Octavia Spencer. Even people who aren’t very familiar with Walker likely know that she made a killing in the hair care business, but a mention of Malone outside St. Louis, where her business was first headquartered, is likely to elicit blank stares.
The website of the State Historical Society of Missouri admits as much. “Annie Turnbo Malone’s legacy as a pioneer in the African American beauty and cosmetic business has largely been overshadowed by the success of her former employee, Madam CJ Walker,” it states. “This is beginning to change, however, and Malone is now being recognized for her role in launching the industry.”
In fact, along with Mary McLeod Bethune and Booker T. Washington, Malone was one of the public figures mentioned in President Donald Trump’s 2019 proclamation on Black History Month.
“Annie Malone ... became one of the most successful entrepreneurs in America at the turn of the century and provided opportunities for African Americans to pursue meaningful careers,” the proclamation said.
When hair salons were still anomalies, Malone helped to popularize cosmetology schools, through her own Poro College, and teach women about the importance of scalp health. And before corporate responsibility became a buzzword, she modeled the idea that business owners should give away much of their wealth.
It’s also not hyperbole to suggest that without Annie Malone, Madam C.J. Walker would not have become a household name. Malone, after all, gave Walker, then working as a laundress, her first job as a hair care sales agent. Walker lived a shorter and, arguably, more dramatic life than Malone did, one reason why she eclipsed her former mentor to reach almost mythological status after her death. But history shows that both of these women, and their interconnected stories, deserve attention more than a century after they became two of the most influential entrepreneurs in the United States.
Annie Malone had a knack for chemistry and a fascination with hair
Annie Malone was born in Metropolis, Illinois, to formerly enslaved parents in 1869. As a girl, she was fascinated by hair and by chemistry, but illness forced her out of high school. In spite of this setback, Malone continued to experiment with chemistry. With the guidance of her herbalist aunt, she began to make hair products catered to black women. One of her first products was a liquid shampoo, but Malone was particularly interested in finding a way to straighten hair that didn’t damage the hair follicles.
At the turn of the century, women often used bacon grease, heavy oils, and butter to straighten hair. Some also used a mixture of lye and potatoes. All of these methods were harmful to hair and scalp, so Malone experimented until she found a hair straightening formula that wasn’t so harsh. She called it her Wonderful Hair Grower.
In 1902, Malone moved from Southern Illinois to St. Louis, Missouri, which was hosting the 1904 World’s Fair. She figured during this time she could attract major business in the city, which also boasted one of the nation’s largest black populations, and opened a shop on Market Street. At some point, likely in 1903, she met her most famous client — Madam C.J. Walker — who then went by the name Sarah Davis or Sarah McWilliams.
Walker had battled hair loss for years due to dandruff and psoriasis of the scalp, then known as “tetter.” Malone knew that the harsh alcohol-based tonics marketed for the condition only made tetter worse and recommended that Walker regularly wash her hair, use a sulfur-based treatment, improve her diet, and practice scalp massage to remedy her follicular woes. Malone’s motto was “clean scalps mean clean bodies” because the method worked. Before long, Walker’s hair grew from shorter than her ears to past her shoulders.
“Mrs. Malone’s Poro system was not based on hair styling as much as it was on scalp hygiene,” according to Whitfield.
When Walker moved to Denver in 1905, she began to sell her own products, which were clearly modeled after Malone’s. She, too, had a product called Wonderful Hair Grower, for example. A furious Malone took out an ad in the Colorado Statesman warning readers to “beware of imitations,” but Walker’s career continued to soar.
Rivals who both achieved great success
Though Annie Malone and Madam CJ Walker were business rivals, both women achieved great wealth after finding their niche in the hair care business. Walker died of kidney failure at age 51 in 1919 with a net worth of roughly $600,000, according to her great-great-granddaughter’s biography, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam CJ Walker. By this time Malone was already a millionaire, but Walker is the mogul who was (wrongly) labeled the first female “self-made millionaire.”
After her untimely death, Walker was also falsely credited with inventing chemical hair relaxers and the hot comb. In fact, neither she nor Malone invented the hot comb. That honor goes to a Frenchman named Marcel Grateau, who reportedly created the hair tool in 1872 for white women seeking to wear their hair in sleek Cleopatra-style bobs. When Grateau came up with his invention, both Walker and Malone were small children. But Walker’s death turned her into a legend of sorts.
“The story of Madam CJ Walker was popularized, justifiably, from photographs demonstrating the growth of her wealth, albeit short-lived, and the appeal of her ‘rags to riches’ experience,” Whitfield said. “The story of Mrs. Annie Turnbo Malone exemplified a different focus — self-help and personal dignity.”
While Malone was formally educated in the North, Walker was born on a Louisiana plantation and spent just a few months in the classroom as a child. She married at 14, had a daughter a few years later, and was widowed at 20. In spite of these odds, she went from washerwoman to businesswoman. That amazing trajectory, combined with Walker’s PR savvy — she was married to adman C.J. Walker — is likely one of the reasons she reached almost mythological status.
But there’s room enough in history to honor Malone and Walker, especially since the former’s business expertise led to the rise of the latter. One generation removed from slavery, these two black women both ran wildly successful business empires unimaginable to even the average American, let alone to average black women, who worked mostly as domestics during the turn of the century.
Malone’s life, on the other hand was hardly as dramatic as Walker’s. While both women were orphaned as children, Malone hadn’t experienced abject poverty in the South or widowhood, as Walker had. In short, her life was not as sensational, and thus, not as headline-grabbing as her former client’s was. Malone’s long life was another reason her story wasn’t mythologized. She lived to be nearly 90 years old. She saw her business through the Great Depression and managed to keep it under her control after her costly divorce from her second husband. By the 1950s, 32 branches of her Poro cosmetology school were up and running across the country.
Today, Malone may not be the household name that Walker is, but Whitfield says that she lives on through her philanthropic efforts.
“Mrs. Malone has already received the attention she desired through the continued work of Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center, which provides a myriad of support opportunities for St. Louis-area youth,” he says. “There is also an annual Annie Malone parade in St. Louis. I have confidence that one day Mrs. Malone will be more widely recognized.”
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