Sharing an Awe-Inspiring Story

Numerous recent projects have renewed interest in the life and legacy of Annie Turnbo Malone.

by James Agbara Bryson, Annie Malone Center for Development
Fiber portrait of Annie Malone by Peoria-based artist Trish Williams
Fiber portrait of Annie Malone by Peoria-based artist Trish Williams

Annie Turnbo Malone was the daughter of escaped slaves who lived in Peoria with her sister, Ada Turnbo Moody and William H. Moody—my grandfather’s parents—in the late 19th century. After attending Peoria High School, she started a hair care business, moved to St. Louis and later founded Poro College, the first African American college in the country dedicated to cosmetology. She became (arguably) the first Black female millionaire in the country, with a reported net worth of $14 million by 1920. 

Annie Malone’s legacy has been in the midst of a renaissance in recent years. The 2020 Netflix series, Self-Made, inspired by the life of her business rival, Madam C.J. Walker, helped generate national interest in her extraordinary story. In turn, this renewed interest has helped spearhead a number of recent accomplishments, both locally and nationally, and given people an opportunity to learn more about this remarkable woman.

Annie Turnbo Malone was the first African American female millionaire, with early roots in Peoria.
Annie Turnbo Malone was the first African American female millionaire, with early roots in Peoria. 

Honoring Annie Malone
On February 29, 2020, Annie Malone was inducted into Peoria’s African American Hall of Fame Museum for her outstanding contributions in business. Both the Netflix series and my updated book, The Hidden Story of Annie Turnbo Malone: The First Black Female Millionaire, have led to film interest in Annie’s story. I was recently contacted by BH365, a history program documenting the unique stories of Black persons, groups and cultures in North America, and invited to serve on their advisory board. Their book, which includes Annie Malone in their curriculum, has been adopted by Peoria Public Schools and many other school districts around the country. They also plan to include my book on a supplemental basis. 

Annie Malone’s legacy is a centerpiece of “Community: African American Freedom, Perseverance and Leadership During Migration,” the Peoria Riverfront Museum’s current exhibition on African Americans’ determination to build family and community before, during and after slavery. This past August, the exhibit’s dedication and open house attracted hundreds of visitors from Peoria and around the U.S. Representatives from the St. Louis-based Annie Malone Children & Family Service Center and Annie Malone Historical Society, along with a host of community leaders and government officials were in attendance. People from as far away as New York and New Mexico came to the event, as did the current residents of the house Annie Malone built for her sister.

Prior to the open house, I hosted a book signing for the latest edition of my book. Peoria City Councilman Andre Allen presented Mayor Rita Ali’s City Proclamation honoring Annie Malone, and the museum premiered a new WTVP documentary about her legacy. A portrait of Annie Malone by Peoria-based artist Trish Williams, commissioned by Big Picture Initiative, was also on display and is part of the exhibit. This portrait is set to be included in Big Picture’s “Portraits of Peoria” mural collection of historic Peorians to be featured on downtown buildings.

Dr. Chajuana Trawick, endowed chair and associate professor of fashion business and design at Lindenwood University, also visited Peoria for the open house. She completed her doctoral dissertation on Annie Malone and Poro College in 2011. Dr. Trawick was happy to meet someone from Annie Malone’s family and to see so much information she had not seen before. She visited the museum exhibit, sat for radio and TV interviews, saw the house Annie built for her sister, and took pictures of Peoria High School during her time here.

In October 2021, Peoria’s Minority Business Development Center honored Annie Malone at its annual gala. Linda Nance of the Annie Malone Historical Society and I were the guest speakers, and I also held a book signing. There were more than 150 attendees and for many, this was the first time they had heard of Annie. The following month, the Peoria Women’s Club honored her at their November luncheon and announced plans to display her portrait and book in their facility. After my presentation, one of their members sent me a link to apply for a state historical marker for Annie’s Peoria residence—and even recommended my book for an award from the Illinois Historical Society! 

My Journey with Annie Malone: James Agbara Bryson premiered on WTVP on November 30, 2021. In this documentary, I share my discovery of her awe-inspiring story, business legacy and family history. Although my aunt Annie was considered a national and international business icon, she always preserved and cherished her relationship with her Peoria family throughout her life. They were the genesis of her values, her entrepreneurial spirit and her future success. I am grateful that WTVP has brought her story to television for the first time.

Poro College in St. Louis, opened by Annie Malone in 1918
Poro College in St. Louis, opened by Annie Malone in 1918

Future Goals and Projects
I am the founder of the Annie Malone Center for Development, which was created to pay homage to Annie Malone and partner with communities, organizations, businesses and individuals who are interested in her story. We wanted a place where future generations across the nation can learn about her legacy. 

In April 2022, Harriet Stowell University, a Historically Black College (HBC) in St. Louis, will host me for a presentation on Annie Malone’s life and legacy. Although St. Louis was the headquarters of Poro College, the Annie Malone Children’s Home (now the Annie Malone Children & Family Service Center) and the annual Annie Malone Parade, most of the city’s residents have limited information regarding Annie. They are eager to learn more about her inspiring story. 

A number of other partnerships and interests have been formed as well. The Annie Malone Center is collaborating with local haircare professionals to educate the community about Annie, as well as mental health issues in the community. Local recording artist War Muhammad has produced a new Annie Malone song that will soon appear on the airwaves, and the iconic Peoria-based artist Preston Jackson is interested in helping to honor Annie Malone and tell her story. Mayor Ali hopes to name a street after Annie, and the Peoria Public Schools Board of Education is considering naming a school after her. There are plans in the works for an annual Annie Malone Business and Leadership Luncheon, an Annie Malone Parade, a mural at the Peoria International Airport and haircare shows, among other projects. 

In fact, many believe that Annie Malone’s story has the power to help make Peoria a national tourist destination. Efforts are underway to collaborate with the museum on related exhibits, as well as exploring a permanent exhibit location. The Annie Malone Center is partnering with Ron Givens, Givsco Construction, Peoria Riverfront Museum, Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce and Discover Peoria to help bring haircare businesses, tourists and visitors to Peoria and develop economic opportunities around these efforts. 

Touching Lives
A couple of years ago, I gave a presentation about Annie Malone to barbering and cosmetology students and staff at Woodruff Career & Technical Center. Not long ago, I returned to Woodruff to explore the possibility of another presentation, and the cosmetology instructor told me she was so inspired by Annie’s story that she is launching her own haircare business! Meanwhile, yet another haircare professional is hosting a haircare and fashion show in her honor. This let me know the spirit of Annie Malone is alive and well here in Peoria—and beyond—as we continue to spread the word and expand upon her legacy. PM

To learn more about the legacy of Annie Malone, visit aunt-annie.com.

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