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Madame Sarah Spencer Washington

March 16, 2014

Born almost twenty-five years after the end of slavery, Madame Sarah Spencer Washington made Apex Hair Products a household name in the African American community, and owned the Apex Beauty Colleges that were in many states across the U.S.  She also published the Apex News.  Not much is known of her, but she contributed to the history of black hair.  Here is her story:

Madame Sarah Spencer Washington, 1889 – 1953: An African American businesswoman, saleswoman, entrepreneur, and philanthropist

Early Life

Washington was born on June 6, 1889, in Berkley, Virginia, the daughter of Joshua and Ellen Douglass Phillips. She attended public schools in Berkley, going on to the Lincoln Preparatory School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Norfolk Mission College in Norfolk, Virginia. She also took classes in beauty culture in York, Pennsylvania, and later studied advanced chemistry at Columbia University in New York City.

Washington’s career began in 1905, when she went to work as a dressmaker, an enterprise she maintained until 1913. Although her family wanted her to become a schoolteacher, she insisted upon entering the then-new field of beauty culture, opening a small hairdressing shop in Atlantic City in 1913.

Contributions to Hair

She worked as an operator in her own shop during the days while going door-to-door in the evenings, selling the beauty products that she herself had developed. She also developed her own beauty system, which she taught to other beauty operators.  Washington gradually accumulated patents for hair pressing oils and scalp creams that improved on existing methods of hair straightening.

In 1919 or 1920, Washington founded her own Apex News and Hair Company in Atlantic City, a beauty school that went on to establish branches across the country: in Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York City; Philadelphia; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Baltimore, Maryland; and Newark, New Jersey. She also founded international branches of her school, including an office in the Bantu World Bank in Johannesburg, South Africa. Each year, more than 25,000 students graduated from these schools.  By the mid-1930s, the schools were graduating as many as 4,000 students each year. According to a 1946 newspaper report, more than 45,000 agents were selling Washington’s products, which had expanded to include beauty creams, cosmetics and perfumes.

From 1937 to 1939, Washington constructed her own laboratory in Atlantic City, where she made some 75 different products. Thus Washington had founded a kind of empire, in which beauty operators across the country learned to administer her system, using her products, while sales agents went door to door, also selling her products.  By the mid-1930s the Apex Beauty Products Company was the largest New Jersey black-owned business and one of the nation’s leading black manufacturing companies. In addition to the cosmetics company, she owned Apex Publishing Company, which published Apex News for beauticians and sales agents, Apex Laboratories, Apex Drug Company and Apex Beauty College. 11 beauty schools in the US ad franchised schools overseas. Apex Beauty Systems Sarah Spencer, one of the first African American millionaires. She was awarded a medallion at the 1939 World’s Fair as one of the Most Distinguished Businesswomen” in the country.

Sarah Spencer Washington portrait

Other Contributions

Washington saw her system of agents as a public service, providing black women with a job that allowed them to become small entrepreneurs of a sort, selling her products on commission.

Concerned about unemployment and seeking to provide as many jobs to the black community as possible, Washington opened a number of other ventures, including Apex Community Drug Store and Apex Rest and Tourist Home. Although the stock market crash of 1929 was hard on Washington, as on so many others, she was able to rebuild her company and thrive for the rest of her life. In 1939, she was awarded a medallion at the New York World’s Fair for her achievements in international business.

Washington was a committed philanthropist, and she is credited with supporting a number of charities, including the Ellen P. Hunter home for Girls in Atlantic City, named for Washington’s mother, and the Betty Bacharach Home for Children in Longport, New Jersey, an institution that helped children from many races. She donated 20 acres of her own farm in Egg Harbor, New Jersey, as a campsite for black youth under the auspices of the National Youth Administration (NYA), one of the New Deal programs established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She even reportedly gave coal to poor families when the winter weather was particularly cold.

A lifelong Republican, Washington was elected to the Atlantic County Republican Committee in 1938 and served as a New Jersey delegate to the GOP national convention. She also supported many community organizations, including founding a school for girls that bore the name of her mother, Ellen Hunter.

End of Life

Although she suffered a stroke in 1947 which left her paralyzed, Madame Washington continued to provide for Atlantic City’s black community, founding an African-American Easter Parade after her efforts to dress two local girls in the best fineries still found them ignored by white judges at the Boardwalk parade.  She died in 1953, at age 72.

Sarah Spencer Washington census

Her Legacy

By the time of her death, Washington’s enterprise was worth more than a million dollars and employed some 500 people, in addition to the 45,000 people who she claimed worked as Apex agents, selling her products door to door. She herself exemplified her company’s slogan: “Now is the time to plan your future by learning a depression-proof business.”

Sarah Spencer Washington

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6 Comments

  • Reply clara harrell February 4, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    I live in the south jersey area but only heard about Madame C J Walker. There is so much about our people that we do not know. Black History is truly a year round learning experience. We have no idea about our potential as a people.

    • Reply AskMeAboutMyHair February 6, 2017 at 1:59 pm

      You are so right! I learned a ton from doing this research and want to just sit down in the middle of books and websites and learn all I can. Thanks for visiting! 🙂

  • Reply Edith Spencer-Mckinnie February 16, 2017 at 8:25 pm

    So much talent. And sadly i never heard of her.WHY??? She is and could be such a great inspiration to our young black children. I found her by looking up her name just to see if she is a related to me. And i found so much more. She was a fascinating and extraordinarily woman. I wish we could know more about our beautiful black popular ancestors.

    • Reply Seth Grossman September 24, 2017 at 9:47 am

      I had the same reaction you did when I learned about Sarah Spencer Washington. Although I was born in 1949 and lived my whole life in Atlantic City, I never heard of her until around 2010. At that time, the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City sponsored a special event to showcase the HBO TV series “Boardwalk Empire”. As part of that event, a local black historian named Sid Trusty was asked to tell the stories of true black historical figures in Atlantic City during the 1920’s and 1930’s who inspired the fictional character “Chalky White”. That was when I heard the remarkable story of Sarah Spencer Washington for the first time. Even more remarkable was that Sid Trusty matter-of-factly rattled off the stories of a half dozen other successful black business owners, teachers, and civic leaders who lived in Atlantic City at the time, and whose stories would also inspire young blacks–and young people of all races– today–but who are completely unknown.

      • Reply AskMeAboutMyHair February 3, 2019 at 9:46 am

        Thank you for this information! I’d love to know more – history is my jam!

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