Black History Spotlight: Annie Malone

Here at Breedlove Market, we gain inspiration from the rich history of successful black entrepreneurs, activists, artists, and creators that overcame unimaginable circumstances. Their ability to overcome systemic racism and constructed inequity guides a path forward for everyone today. Despite the work put in by these individuals, they frequently are not taught in traditional educational systems. Without teaching the success of our past, we can't expect success in the future. With that in mind, we want to highlight 28 historical figures, one for each day of Black History Month. We hope that their inspirational true-life stories will inspire you to also chase after your dreams.

Annie Malone
Annie Malone

On the fourth day of Black History Month, we're shining a spotlight on Annie Malone. We specifically wanted to cover the life of Malone because you might have seen her pop up in a different blog post of ours. We mentioned Malone in our post about Madam C. J. Walker. If you remember, Walker used to work for Malone before striking out on her own to start the Walker Manufacturing Company. This venture caused the two to be competitors in the hair care field. We can get to their feud later.

Born on August 9, 1869, in Metropolis, Illinois, Malone was a black entrepreneur, inventor, and philanthropist. She was the tenth of eleven children. Her mother died, leaving her an orphan at a young age. In 1896, she moved to Peoria to live with her older sister. While living in Peoria she attended high school and discovered a natural affinity for chemistry, however, due to frequent illness she had to withdraw from classes.

Without school, Malone spent significant time working on her knowledge of hair and hair care and often practiced hairdressing on her sister.

Malone began researching and developing her own products to straighten hair. Many women of the time used products that were damaging to the scalp and hair. Products used to straighten hair were goose fat, oils, soap, or bacon grease.

Malone finalized her experiments with her hair care products creating non-damaging straighteners, special oils, and hair-stimulant products specifically for black women. She named her product "Wonderful Hair Grower" and sold bottles of it door-to-door. Malone's products and her sales started to revolutionize the industry.

Poro College advertisement Annie Malone
Poro Advertisement

Malone moved to St. Louis in 1902, where she and three employees sold her products door to door. To attract new customers, she would offer free treatments. Demand quickly grew for her products so she opened her first shop at 2223 Market Street, launched a massive advertising campaign in black newspapers, held news conferences, toured other states, and recruited other women to sell her products.

Around this time is when Sarah Breedlove (who you may better know as Madam C. J. Walker) was one of her selling agents. A disagreement between Malone and Walker resulted in Walker leaving the company. When Walker left, it was suspected by Malone that Walker took her Poro formula and rebranded it to sell under a different name. This is why Malone copyrighted her products under the name "Poro" specifically to prevent fraudulent imitations and discourage counterfeit products.

Poro College
Poro College

In 1910, Malone moved again to a larger location due to continued growth in demand. Eight years later she established the Poro College, a cosmetology school. Like many other large manufacturers of the time, the new college was a very large facility containing a manufacturing plant, a retail Poro store, offices, a 500-seat auditorium, conference and dining rooms, a roof garden, dormitory, gym, bakery, and chapel. It was so large that it became the center for religious and social functions for local black people.

The curriculum of Poro College was geared to becoming an employee of the company. Facets of the curriculum including curating a personal style that conveyed a solid persona to increase sales.

The entire college employed 200 people in St. Louis. In total, through its school and franchisement business, an estimated 75,000 people in North and South America, Africa, and the Philippines were employed by Malone's company.

Malone's business continued to thrive up until 1927. Her husband filed for divorce, and as serving president, demanded half of the business' value. The court battle forced the business into court-ordered receivership. Eventually, a settlement was negotiated for $200,000, affirming Malone as the sole owner of Poro College.

After the divorce, Malone moved a majority of the business to Chicago, purchasing an entire city block. Like most businesses that had to survive through the Great Depression, Poro College worked through this time by reducing the overall size of the business, closing much of her St. Louis operations. The business continued to thrive during this time and despite multiple lawsuits.

Like other black entrepreneurs, Malone utilized her wealth to support causes close to her. Although she was extremely wealthy, she lived modestly. She donated large sums to the local black YMCA and to Howard University's College of Medicine. She became a benefactor of the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home and served as president from 1919 to 1943. After the organization purchase a facility, the road was renamed Annie Malone Drive in her honor.

In 1957, Malone suffered a stroke and died in Chicago at Provident Hospital. She listed her nieces and nephews as the inheritors of her business and remaining fortune.

If you'd like to learn more about Annie Malone, her life, and legacy, we recommend the following sources that we used to create this post:

  • The State Historical Society of Missouri

  • Vox

  • Face 2 Face Africa

Breedlove Market is a marketplace that sells products exclusively from black-owned brands and businesses. We aim to take out the challenge of finding the right black-owned product and make it easier to shop with a purpose.