Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone

February 16, 2014

Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone launched her hair care business and sold her products door-to-door.  Although not as well-known as Mme CJ Walker, Annie Malone was the first to develop hair care products for Black American women at the turn of the 20th century; and that is why she is portrayed as the first influence to the history of black [natural] hair.  Here is her story…

Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone, 1869 – 1957: an African-American chemist, businesswoman, educator,  inventor and philanthropist.

Early Life

Annie was born in Metropolis, Illinois. She was the tenth of eleven children born to Robert Turnbo, a poor farmer, and Isabella Cook Turnbo.  Because her parents died when she was young, Annie was raised by her older sister in nearby Peoria, Illinois. She was a sickly child and missed a lot of school which resulted her in having to withdraw before completing high school.  Though she did not graduate, she did discover she was good at chemistry.

While she was coming of age, the popular style among Black women was that of a “straight hair” look.  Black women were starting to turn their backs on the braided cornrow styles they’d associated with the fields of slavery and began to embrace a look which, for them meant, freedom and progression toward equality in America.

Contributions to Hair

While in Peoria, Malone took an early interest in hair textures. In the 1890s — being a lover of styling hair — Annie began to envision a way of straightening hair without having to use the methods of old which included using soap, goose fat, heavy oils, butter and bacon grease or the carding combs of sheep.  She’d also witnessed method of hair straightening which employed lye sometimes mixed with potatoes, but was turned off by the procedure because it often resulted in damaged scalps and broken hair follicles.

Coupled with the influence of her aunt who was an herbal doctor and her knowledge of Chemistry, Annie Turnbo developed a chemical which could be used to straighten hair without causing damage to the hair or scalp. By the time she was in her late  20′s, Turnbo had developed a straightening solution, and by the beginning of the 1900s, Annie Malone began to revolutionize hair care methods for all African Americans. Armed with this revolutionary formula and a product she called “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower,” Annie moved to St. Louis in 1902. She hired some assistants and began selling her products door-to-door.   Word of her products and teaching method spread like wild fire and soon her products and her “Poro Method” of styling hair were a success.

She eventually created an entire line of hair care and beauty products specifically for black women. Recognizing she needed a larger market in which to sell her products, Turnbo moved her business to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1902, which at the time held the fourth largest population of African Americans.  In St. Louis she copyrighted her Poro brand beauty products.   The city’s economy was booming in preparation for the 1904 World’s Fair.  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. Business grew steadily. After a positive response at the World’s Fair, Turnbo’s Poro company went national.  Malone called it Poro, a West African secret society located throughout Liberia and Sierra Leone. There also some elements of the term that indicate beauty. She and her assistants sold her unique brand of hair care products door to door.  

Poro Beauty Products

Poro Pressing Oil

Interesting fact:  One of her sales agents, Sara Breedlove, used the knowledge she learned from her time working under Annie Malone, and started her own hair care line of products.

By 1917, as the United States entered World War I, Annie Malone had become so successful that she founded and opened Poro College in St. Louis.  It was the first educational institution in the United States dedicated to the study and teaching of black cosmetology. The school reportedly graduated about 75,000 agents world-wide, including the Caribbean.  The school employed nearly 200 people. Its curriculum included instructions to train students on personal style to present themselves at work — walking, talking and style of dress designed to maintain a solid public persona.  Malone believed that if African American women improved their physical appearance, they would gain greater self-respect and achieve success in other areas of their lives.

Poro Hair and Beauty Culture

Poro College Admin building

Poro College Advertisement 1924

Poro graduating class

Poro College certificate

Other Contributions

Annie Malone had several philanthropic interests, and by 1023 she had become a multi-millionaire, and shared her wealth with many organizations, especially those for children and education, and her goodwill extended from the St. Louis Colored Orphan’s Home, included financing the education of two full-time students in every historically black college and university in the country – her $25,000 donation to Howard University was among the largest gifts the university had received by a private donor of African descent – and she purchased the now Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center.

St Lous Colored Orphans home

Malone was very generous with family and employees.  She educated  many of her niece and nephews and bought homes for her brothers and sisters.  She awarded employees with lavish gifts for attendance, punctuality, service annoversaries, and as rewards for investing in real estate.

Malone also gave generously of her time in the community.  She was president of the Colored Women’s Federated Clubs of St. Louis, an executive committee member of the National Negro Business League and the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, an honorary member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, a lifelong Republican, and a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

End of Life

Annie Malone began having financial difficulties that stemmed from a marital struggle that was kept quiet until 1927, when Aaron Malone filed for divorce and demanded half the business.  He claimed that Poro’s success was due to contacts he brought to the company. He courted black leaders and politicians who sided with him in the highly publicized divorce.  Annie Malone’s devotion to black women and charitable institutions led Poro workers and church leaders to support her. She also had the support of the press and Mary McLeod bethune, president of the National Association of Colored Women.  Having the support of so powerful a woman helped Annie Malone prevail in the dispute and allowed her to keep her business. She negotiated a settlement of $200,000.

In 1930 and entering her 60s, Malone moved her business to Chicago, where its location became known as the Poro block. Her financial trouble continued when she became the target of lawsuits, including one by a former employee who claimed credit for her success.  When the suit was settled in 1937, she was forced to sell the St. Louis property.  Malone’s business was further crippled by enormous debt to the government for unpaid real estate and excise taxes.  In 1943, Malone lost her company to a government lien and most of her holdings were sold.  However, when Annie Malone died of a stroke in 1957, Poro beauty colleges were in operation in more than thirty U.S. cities.

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.”  The street on which the center is located was renamed Annie Malone Drive in her honor.

Her Legacy

Malone’s business failure tarnished her image. Her former employee, Madame C.J. Walker, often overshadows Malone because Walker’s business remained successful and more widely known. Walker is often credited as the originator of the black beauty and cosmetics business and the direct distribution and sales agent system that Malone developed.  This is beginning to change, however, and Malone is now being recognized for her role in launching the industry.

Many historians believe Malone deserves more credit for her devotion to helping African Americans gain financial independence and her generous donations to educational, civic, and social causes.

Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone


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  • Reply John Whitfield February 3, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    Greetings. Your website is great! I hope to see more highlighting the relatively unknown life of Mrs. Malone. I have just completed a full-length biography of the life of Mrs. Annie Turnbo Malone and Poro College. It is with a publisher now and I hope that it will be completed in a couple of months.

    John Whitfield

    • Reply NappyGoddesse February 6, 2015 at 1:51 pm

      Wow, thank you! I would like to do more historical pieces that highlight the history of natural hair as well as those significant contributors to its history… I’m glad you found this interesting! What is the link to your book?

      • Reply john whitfield May 27, 2016 at 1:12 pm

        Greetings. My book is now available on It is entitled “A Friend to All Mankind: The Story of Mrs. Annie Turnbo Malone and Poro College”. I hope that you enjoy it. Thanks for your blog.

        Best Wishes,

        John Whitfield

        • Reply AskMeAboutMyHair August 9, 2016 at 8:03 pm

          Very cool! Thank you for sharing this.

          • Reynard Allison October 8, 2016 at 4:53 pm

            Kudos to the author of this post for providing a platform for dialogue! Hello Mr. Whitfield, I have just ordered your book “A Friend To All Mankind”. Although I can’t speak as someone who has read the book in it’s entirety; Based upon the excerpts that were available to read in the Amazon preview; it was very compelling! The book seems to approach Ms. Malone’s life story with care and consideration as a person that we all can relate to. There is so much about Ms. Malone that many of us are not aware of and I am pleased whenever I see people taking out time to discover more about this great American business woman who’s story is worthy of being told. I am currently directing a documentary film titled “Black Hair Empire” The Untold Story of How Black Hair…Became Black Power. The film chronicles the history of the people who built the African American beauty industry and how their influence changed the way African Americans and our culture was perceived by the rest of the world. I would love to speak with you regarding your book as well as your perspective on not just Annie Malone but African Americans and the business of beauty at the turn of the century.

  • Reply Linda Floyd Jones August 2, 2016 at 3:59 am

    Thank you for writing Annie Malone’s story and her contributions to our community. She took Black women out of the kitchen and fields (including Madam CJ Walker) and gave them opportunities to start their own business at a time when we were being denied our basic rights. The Annie Malone Historical Society (AMHS) wants to let our people know they can do the same today. Annie Malone’s history is a rags to riches story that needs to be told. Our youth believe sports and music are the only ways to become successful. Well, Ms. Malone created an entire hair and beauty industry without the use of computers, internet or cell phones and used those funds to uplift her people. The AMHS wants to tell her story so our young people will know they are creative and have the intelligence to do anything they choose. If we do not tell our history, who will?

  • Reply K Richburg October 2, 2016 at 5:04 am

    Is there any place where I can find PORO Hair Grease today?

  • Reply Joel Freeman October 4, 2016 at 8:32 pm

    Website about Annie Malone (along with a museum-quality reproduction of a 1926 book about Poro College) —

  • Reply K Richburg October 6, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    People never change. It happens time & time again when someone creates a concept and/or business and becomes successful there will always be a jealous or envious someone who wants your success. Most times it is always someone that you have helped along the way. My sister mentioned Mrs Malone’s products to me recently so I decided to google her name. I am glad I did. I love hearing about black inventors and their creative minds. Their contributions to the world need to be recognized as well as credited to their legacy. It’s sad when others set out to take control over or diminish the work of someone else. How can they look in the mirror or find peace & contentment in their hearts, when what they have gained is through deception thievery of the lowest level?

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