Peoria’s First Black Female Millionaire

Annie Turnbo Malone was a shrewd businesswoman, philanthropist, entrepreneur and servant leader.

by James Agbara Bryson
Annie Turnbo Malone, Peoria's first African American female millionaire
Annie Turnbo Malone was the first African American female millionaire, with early roots in Peoria. Photos courtesy of Shirley Bryson archives

For many people, the story of Annie Turnbo Malone is a hidden one. Fortunately I was blessed to learn about her because she was the aunt of my grandfather, Roland Moody. After he died, the Annie Malone story began to unfold as my mother and I stumbled over documents and artifacts that my grandparents left us. After researching, I realized we had a wealth of information about her legacy and awe-inspiring story. 

Creating Opportunities
The remarkable Annie Turnbo Malone never obtained a high school diploma, yet she was the founder of Poro College—a pioneer who developed an empire selling black hair products throughout America and the world. She became one of the richest women in the country, with estimated holdings of $14 million at one point. She was also a servant leader and philanthropist who gave millions of dollars to African American causes and organizations. 

Sadly, educational and economic opportunities were rare for most African Americans, but this did not stop Annie Malone from becoming a business icon and a fervent advocate for education. It was reported that she supported two full-time students in every black college in the country, and taught her students life and pre-employment skills, including how to walk, talk and behave in social situations. Eventually her life’s accomplishments earned her honorary degrees from Howard University, Wilberforce University, Kittrell College and Western College. 

One of ten children, Annie Turnbo was born to escaped slave parents in Metropolis, Illinois in 1869. She became orphaned around the age of six, and later went with her sisters Sarah and Ada Turnbo, who moved to Peoria to live with their married sister, Laura Turnbo Roberts. Ada Turnbo later married William H. Moody, my grandfather’s father.

Although Annie attended Peoria High School, she never graduated. It was reported that she was often ill and suffered from coughing spells that would leave her bedridden and exhausted for days. After dropping out of school, she became a hairdresser. Her aunt, a chemist and herbal doctor, helped Annie develop a formula that would become a primary ingredient in her hair and beauty products targeting African American women.

Growing Her Business
Annie began to advance her skills and business model while still in Peoria, identifying a niche and going door to door selling her products. During this era, black women wanted a different look that did not reflect the rural plantation corn-roll hairstyle, which reminded them of slavery. In 1900, she moved with her sister Laura to Lovejoy, Illinois, not far from St. Louis. A couple years later, she moved to St. Louis and decided to market her products at the 1902 St. Louis Exposition. This successful strategy laid the foundation for what would become Poro College. 

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

Poro is a West African term that means “physical and spiritual growth.” In 1906, Annie copyrighted her Poro products to help protect her and the public from cheap imitators. The business grew rapidly, and she opened Poro College in 1918 with an investment of more than one million dollars. It was the first African American college in the country dedicated to cosmetology.

The college/annex was a civic and convention center for African Americans who were barred from attending social events because of segregation. The Poro Annex was three stories high and 100,000 square feet, made with fireproof bricks, and featured electric elevators and a cafeteria with a roof garden. By 1926, Annie employed 175 people in St. Louis, and Poro’s success enabled it to have a college or affiliate in every state in the country. It trained more than 75,000 agents worldwide, including the Caribbean and Africa. 

Poro gave women the means and resources to change their lives. The average black woman of the day earned one to two dollars a week. Working as an agent of the Poro Company, however, they could earn a minimum of three to five dollars a week—and up to as much as one hundred dollars per week. Some paid for franchises and opened salons in their homes or other sites. Thousands of women wanted to join the Poro team.

One such woman was Sarah Breedlove, known as Madam C. J. Walker, who was a Poro agent, protégé and eventually a famous competitor. A lot of credit is given to Mrs. Walker for being a very successful hair entrepreneur. But ironically, one of the biggest misconceptions is that she was the first African American female millionaire—and that she originated the black beauty business.

Walker, who was employed by Annie Turnbo in 1905, duplicated Poro’s products and business model. She moved to Colorado, Pennsylvania and then Indiana, where she became very successful and well-known before her death in 1919. But the credit of being the first black female millionaire and original founder belongs to Peoria’s servant leader and hair care icon, Annie Turnbo Malone.

A Strong Legacy
Annie Turnbo married Arron Malone in 1914 and became known as Annie Turnbo Malone. A decade later, Mr. Malone filed for divorce and sued Annie for half of her fortune. Consequently, she had to sell Poro College in St. Louis and never fully recovered financially. She moved to Chicago in 1930 and bought numerous buildings on the south side, which became known as the “Poro Block.” Despite selling much of her property and assets, she still owed $100,000 and lost the business to the government. The stress began to take a toll, threatening her health as well as her finances. 

In spite of these circumstances, Annie Malone continued to be a strong supporter of the St. Louis community and especially the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home, where she was board president from 1919 to 1943. In recognition of her commitment, the facility was renamed the Annie Malone Children’s Home in 1946, and it remains operational today. 

Annie survived numerous challenges during her lifetime, but on May 10, 1957, the “Queen of Poro” died from a stroke at the age of 87. Although most of her empire has been dismantled, she left behind a strong legacy, including the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center (formerly the Annie Malone Children’s Home) and the Annie Malone May Day Parade in St. Louis—the second largest ongoing African American parade in the country. 

Upon investigating Annie Turnbo Malone, I was moved to share her awe-inspiring story. This year she will be inducted into Peoria’s African American Hall of Fame, and a book is being published about her life. I hope this article will resurrect her memory and legacy locally, and encourage others to become the next business icon from Peoria, Illinois. PM

James Agbara Bryson is the founder and CEO of New Millennium Institute.

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