September 29, 2023

Oprah Who? Annie Malone was First

Before there was Oprah Winfrey, there was Annie Turnbo Malone, an African-American entrepreneur and philanthropist who gave time, money and a school to help local African Americans succeed.

Malone is recorded as the nation’s first African-American female millionaire based on reports of $14 million in assets held in 1920 from her beauty and cosmetic enterprises which were based in St. Louis and Chicago.

Born in 1869, young Annie attended school in Illinois where she worked with her sister as a hairdresser. By 1889, Malone had developed her own 27406008385169.KRm0tI5bNpGmzNoE3rnX_height640scalp and hair products that she demonstrated and sold from a buggy throughout the state. The hair product straighten African American women’s hair without damaging it like the products at the time did. She eventually created an entire line of hair care and beauty products specifically for black women.

As a black woman, Turnbo was denied access to regular distribution channels. To sell her products, she and her assistants went door-to-door, giving demonstrations. After a great response at the 1904 World’s Fair, Turnbo’s Poro company went national. (Poro is a West African word that means physical and spiritual growth.)

By 1917, Malone opened the doors of the huge beauty school Poro College, which was later attended by Madam C.J. Walker. The building included a manufacturing plant, a retail store where Poro products were sold, business offices, a 500-seat auditorium, dining and meeting rooms, a roof garden, dormitory, gymnasium, bakery, and chapel. During its operation, the school reportedly graduated about 75,000 agents worldwide and boasted a healthy profit margin.

From 1919 to 1943, Malone served as board president of the St. Louis Colored Orphan’s Home. She had donated the first $10,000 to build the orphanage’s new building in 1919. During the 1920s, her philanthropy included financing the education of two full-time students in every historically black college and university. Her $25,000 donation to Howard University was among the largest gifts the university had received by a private donor of African descent.

Although she faced several financial setbacks, Malone remained in business and had 32 branches of the Poro school throughout the country in the mid-1950s. She also continued to support charities in St. Louis and around the nation throughout her life.

On May 10, 1957, Annie Turnbo Malone was treated for a stroke in Chicago where she died. St. Louis honors her memory with the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center whose mission is “is to improve the quality of life for children, families, elderly and the community by providing social services, educational programs, advocacy and entrepreneurship.”