Hair Care Helped a Community: Black Entrepreneur Annie Malone and Poro College
There are times when a building reveals a whole community. The year was 1918. And the St. Louis Poro College headquarters was just such a building.
When black hair care entrepreneur Annie Turnbo Malone opened the cosmetology school’s 3-acre, $350,000 building in 1918, it was—as the St. Louis Argus put it—“one of the biggest events of the season and an educational feast.” That year’s program featured orators and artists such as Dr. Mary Fitzbutler Waring (president of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs), opera singer Anita Patti Brown, and African American diplomat Lester Walton.
Founded in 1902 as a small shop at 2223 Market Street, Poro was known for its busy social calendar. “In some situations, they would have a reporter from a black newspaper assigned to the Poro College,” says Linda Nance, founding president of the Annie Malone Historical Society. “There was always something happening: some tea, some cotillion, some performance. They were always doing something that demonstrated their excellence.” That ‘something happening’ included Poro’s annual open houses and exhibitions (one of which featured a slideshow on President Lincoln).
Poro was a hub, and its many spokes extended beyond St. Louis. By 1920, Malone’s hair care empire employed 300 people locally and 75,000 agents nationally compared to just 150 local employees and 25,000 agents in 1918. Poro’s students were mostly black women, such as future beauty care entrepreneur Madam CJ Walker (Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Chuck Berry was a notable exception). Poro expanded the range of economic opportunity for its students, teaching them how to care for hair, manufacture hair pieces, and perform manicures and massages. It provided a 10-day review course for its agents who sold Poro hair care products as independent contractors. Through franchising, the Poro name and teaching method spread across the US and even abroad.
The original 1918 building on St. Ferdinand and Pendleton (now Annie Malone Drive) was four stories high. It held the instructional department and beauty parlor, 800-seat auditorium, cafeteria, sewing shop, guest rooms, dormitory, emergency rooms for first aid treatment, apartment for the Malones, and roof garden for Poro graduations. At its construction, much was made of the price tag, with African American newspaper the Broad Ax writing that “not a dollar [was] due any living soul.”
Adjusted for inflation, that original price of $350,000 would be just under $5.5 million in 2018.
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Soon after moving to the new 3-acre site, the Poro College campus grew again with a $150,000 annex added in 1920. The annex opening was feted in style. Festivities dominated that Thanksgiving week and included speakers such as St. Louis mayor Henry W. Kiel and educator Hallie Q. Brown, who had been the dean of women at Tuskegee University (then Institute) during the 1892-1893 school year. A day of events was even planned for the thirty women delegates arriving from across the country for the celebration.
And the annex was worth celebrating. As reported by the Broad Ax, it occupied “an area of two acres, [was] built of reinforced concrete and steel and absolutely fireproof.” The space was also incredibly multipurpose, with space for everything from laundry, mailing, refrigerating, and stock rooms to clerical, filing, publicity, sewing and product mixing departments, two private chemical laboratories, a bake shop, and an elevator.
By all accounts, the complex’s wide array of services was intentional. Poro College was the first of its kind—as a cosmetology school, beauty care distribution factory, training center, and monument to black excellence built in the heart of St. Louis’ historic black district of the Ville. Poro's location was no accident. As the Broad Ax quoted Malone, “We are striving for our own. Poro College is an industrial effort of the colored people, by the colored people, for the colored people, and the education that we have to offer is the education of example.” As one of the first African-American female millionaires and a high school dropout, Malone’s goal was to empower others to overcome hardship and achieve success.
Given the intensity of segregation in St. Louis at the time, Poro had to be all things to the Ville’s black residents. “Poro was a facility that accommodated the community,” says Nance. “Malone did a lot of things that invited the community into that space.” The college complex eventually housed many of the Ville’s important services, from the Frederick Douglas Post Office to the National Negro Business League headquarters.
Poro’s activities in 1927 revealed the depth of its engagement with its community. “There was a horrible tornado that tore up the northern side of the city,” says Nance. “Even though Annie Malone was not even in the city of St. Louis, by telegram she said, ‘Open up the doors of the Poro College and be of assistance to as many people as you can.’” For several weeks, Poro College sheltered, clothed, and fed up to 5,000 people affected by the storm.
The St. Louis Poro campus went through several changes after Malone relocated to Chicago in the early 1930s. The building transitioned from cosmetology campus to hotel to law school, until it was bought in 1965, razed, and a public housing complex built in its place by the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Despite Poro’s changing fortunes, Malone’s shadow is long over the Ville. And nowhere is her influence and philanthropic spirit better embodied than in the Annie Malone Children & Family Service Center. Originally called the St. Louis Colored Orphan’s Home, the center was renamed in 1946. Malone’s $10,000 donation enabled the home to move to its current location in the Ville in 1922. She also served as president of Board of Directors from 1919 to 1943. In her honor, the center organizes an annual May Day Parade. The parade, begun in 1910, bears the distinction of longest running and second largest African American parade in the country.
For Patricia Washington, vice president of development at the Center, “Saying the word parade is almost a misnomer. It doesn’t give due diligence to all of the events that make up the parade,” she said. “You can’t go anywhere in St. Louis and say ‘Annie Malone May Day parade’ without someone telling you a story. If you were part of the parade in any way, you were cream of the crop. And it’s still that way to this day.”
So while Poro College is lost to history, Malone's memory lives on.