by Janice Athill -
SGN Contributing Writer
What began as Negro History Week in 1929 has blossomed into Black History Month. Over the last 92 years, this has provided schoolchildren, teachers, and other adults with information that would have otherwise gone unknown to them. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, and Jackie Robinson continue to be household names for their contributions to the advancement of the Black community.
Unfortunately, the week that grew into a month is still too little time to focus on all the contributions, and some names are not as remembered as they should be. Time crunches have led educators to decide which individuals are the most important to discuss. This has caused a disconnect in Black history education across school districts and communities.
A very prominent name in the Black community is Madam C.J. Walker. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, she is credited as America's first self-made millionaire, although her net worth was valued at only $600,000 by the time she died. She built a line of hair care products that lifted herself and the women she employed out of poverty and helped establish modern beauty standards. These are amazing accomplishments that deserve to be recognized.
However, it is disheartening to realize that the stories of other hard-working Black women who gave Madam C.J. Walker her start have been lost to history for many in our communities.
For example, Annie Turnbo Malone, born Annie Minerva Turnbo on August 9, 1869, in Metropolis, Ill., was a chemist, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and inventor who is also credited as one of America's first millionaires. She developed a chemical that could straighten Black hair with less damage to the scalp than its predecessors, and she holds the patent for the pressing comb. She created a hair care line for Black women that catered to the needs of their straightened hair, which included Wonderful Hair Grower, one of the most popular items in her storefront.
In 1902 Turnbo moved her business to St. Louis, and although she was denied access to regular distribution methods, this motivated Black woman hired assistants to help her sell her products door to door. She had also arrived just in time for the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, where she received positive reviews that helped take her business national.
During this time, one of her employees was Sarah Breedlove, soon to be well known as Madam C.J. Walker. Walker was a former washwoman who studied under Turnbo, and she went on to produce a similar line of hair care products after a disagreement between them. Walker also ran her business similarly to Turnbo's, and although she is known as "the most successful Black entrepreneur of the early 20th century and founder of the Black beauty business in the United States," historians acknowledge Turnbo as the first to develop her products and the door-to-door distribution system. To avoid confusion between her and Walker's products, Turnbo trademarked Poro as the new name for her product and merchandising systems in 1906.
In 1916 Turnbo married Aaron E. Malone, and by the end of World War I, she was a millionaire. Together the couple manufactured hair care products - but they also provided a way for Black women to improve themselves during a time with few career opportunities.
In 1928 she built Poro College in St. Louis, which included a training center and facilities for many other functions Blacks were excluded from at the time. Valued at more than $1 million, the campus included classrooms, barber shops, laboratories, an auditorium, dining facilities, a theater, a gymnasium, a chapel, and a rooftop garden. The facility housed local and national organizations, and the training center provided cosmetology and sales training that taught students how to walk, talk, and behave in social situations.
Despite her wealth, valued at around $14 million by 1920 (a year after Walker's death), Malone lived a conservative lifestyle, giving away much of her fortune to help the Black community. Considered one of America's first major black philanthropists, she made what were the largest contributions at the time by a member of the Black community: $25,000 to Howard University Medical School, as well as the same amount to help build the St. Louis Colored YWCA. She made contributions to the Tuskegee Institute and several orphanages, including the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home. Malone educated her nieces and nephews, bought homes for her brothers and sister, and awarded her employees with expensive anniversary gifts, as well as incentives for attendance and punctuality.
By 1926 Poro College employed 175 people; however, Malone's international franchises in Africa, the Philippines, and North and South America employed over 75,000 women.
Annie Turnbo Malone was a prolific businesswoman and devoted philanthropist who proved that using your wealth to educate and uplift your community is mutually beneficial.
Although Annie Malone and Madam C.J. Walker are both responsible for the whitewashing of Black women, their hair, and their personalities, what these two women did was the most logical path to acceptance at the time - we had to be accepted as a reflection of the white persona before we could be accepted as ourselves.
However, despite their hard work and the opportunities they provided Black women and their families in the early 1900s, this was ultimately detrimental to the advancement of Black women in society and led to future struggles for the acceptance of the unaltered Black woman, natural Black hair, and unfiltered personalities. That being said, we would not have come this far without Annie Malone and Madam C.J. Walker.