A pioneer of black beauty culture and the founder and president of Poro College in St. Louis, Annie Minnerva Turnbo Malone was one of the most successful black female entrepreneurs of the early 20th century. While her fame would later be eclipsed by that of her former student and business rival, Madam C. J. Walker, the significance of Malone and her business to the development of commercial black beauty culture and the economic independence it gave African American women made her a leader among her peers. The 10th of 11 children, Malone was born August 9, 1869, in Metropolis, Illinois. After losing both parents, Malone moved to Peoria, Illinois, where she lived with older siblings and by high school began to chemically experiment with solutions to straighten and enhance the texture of black hair. Despite setbacks from chronic illness during her teen years, Malone, dissatisfied with the hair-care remedies and styling techniques available to black women, introduced Wonderful Hair Grower, a product she claimed would make thin, dull, and sparse hair grow.
Black migration to urban areas, greater accessibility to store-bought goods, and the use of mass advertising made cities such as St. Louis and later Chicago ideal locations for beauty entrepreneurs like Malone to market their products and training. After years of perfecting her trademark product, the Wonderful Hair Grower, Malone relocated her business across the Mississippi to St. Louis in 1902. Inspired by her African heritage, Malone chose the name Poro, of West African origin, for its connection to organizations dedicated to the physical and spiritual enhancement of the body and spirit. With the rental of a small flat in downtown St. Louis, the center of the black commercial and residential district, Malone made plans to purchase a larger facility to accommodate her growing business. She also adopted effective marketing techniques with the use of newspaper advertisements, door-to-door demonstrations, lecture tours, and the later establishment of a beauty training college.
Devoted to training black women for careers in beauty culture and enhancing the cultural and civic life of the community, Poro College opened in 1918. The three-story building consisted of a factory and store for Poro hair and cosmetic products, a hairdressing school, dormitory, auditorium, and dining and committee rooms used for meetings, banquets, lectures, and entertainment. Taking in some of the largest revenues of any black business, Poro became one the city’s most prominent institutions. A gifted businesswoman and philanthropist, Malone employed nearly 200 women locally, for whom she represented an example of leadership, grace, and personal achievement. With assistance from her then husband, Aaron E. Malone, Malone made generous donations to a host of black institutions, especially the St. Louis Colored Orphan’s home, renamed the Annie Malone Children’s Home in 1945. From 1900 until her death in 1957, the Poro business included 32 beauty schools and upwards of 75,000 beauty agents in the United States, Canada, South America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines. Such accomplishments distinguished Malone as one of the first women in the United States without inherited wealth to become a millionaire from her professional efforts.