How 20th-century entrepreneur Annie Malone created 75,000 jobs for women

BY Preta Peace Namasaba June 19, 2024 5:30 PM EDT

Observed annually on June 19, Juneteenth, also known as Black Independence Day, Emancipation Day, and Jubilee Day commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. A play on the words “June” and “nineteenth”, the holiday recognizes the impact of June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger ordered the final enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas at the end of the American Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring more than three million enslaved people living in the Confederate states free in 1863. However, it took more than two years before the news reached African Americans living in Texas. The state’s formerly enslaved residents immediately celebrated the abolition of slavery with prayer, feasting, song, and dance.

The first official Juneteenth celebrations took place in Texas the following year, on June 19, 1866. It became an annual tradition with African Americans in other states soon began celebrating the day. These celebrations continued into the 20th and 21st centuries, typically including prayer and religious services, speeches, educational events, family gatherings and picnics, and festivals, among other events. Following the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020, interest in the day was renewed.  President Joe Biden signed legislation in 2021 making Juneteenth, which falls on June 19, a federal holiday.

In addition to celebrating the end of slavery, Juneteenth honors the culture and achievements of African Americans and serves as a lens to further the empowerment of Black people in America. Leaders of the 1960s civil rights movement recognized that economic power was necessary to attain greater freedom and empowerment in the United States. This has never been truer. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, households with a white, non-Hispanic householder had 10 times more wealth than those with a Black householder in 2021. Although Black households made up 13.6% of all U.S. households, they held only 4.7% of all wealth. These disparities in wealth and income leave African Americans financially vulnerable and in deep asset poverty.

Economic empowerment is fundamental to African Americans building up their communities, expanding their businesses, and being able to join the middle and upper class in America. This can be achieved by supporting Black businesses, promoting financial literacy in the community, creating Black capital, and employing and mentoring the next generation. 20th-century inventor, chemist, entrepreneur, and educator Annie Malone is the poster child of how economic empowerment can transform the Black community. She turned hawking her hair products into a million-dollar business, founding Poro College which created jobs for 75,000 women globally.

Malone was born in Illinois to parents who had formerly been enslaved. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised by an older sister and missed many of her high school classes due to frequent illness. Although Malone did not graduate, her passion for chemistry was ignited. She was fascinated with hair and hair care and practiced hairdressing with her sister. Malone combined her expertise in chemistry and hair care to create hair products.

She developed a hair product to straighten African American women’s hair without damaging it. Many women at the time used goose fat, heavy oils, soap, or bacon grease to straighten their hair which damaged it and the scalp. The initial product was named “Wonderful Hair Grower.” She designed its formula in the back of a small building. Malone hawked her products door-to-door as she was denied access to regular distribution channels. She brought on assistants to help sell her products as to business grew. She moved to St. Louis in 1902 in preparation for the World’s Fair.

At the World’s Fair, Malone sold her hair and beauty products to all the tourists. They received a positive response and the company went national. She then trademarked her products as Poro which she said was a West African term for “physical and spiritual fulfillment.” The enterprise tremendously expanded, becoming one of the largest black businesses in St. Louis, Missouri.

In 1918, Malone established Poro College in St. Louis. It was a multipurpose facility with a cosmetology school and training center for Black women. Poro College had a dormitory, a five-hundred-seat auditorium, a roof garden, and dining and meeting rooms. The school served as a gathering place for the African American community, and civic, and community organizations. Poro College also housed Malone’s business operations. She had a manufacturing plant, a store for Poro hair and cosmetic products, and business offices at the school. She established branches of Poro College in fifteen major cities in the United States. It employed nearly 200 people in St. Louis and created jobs for almost 75,000 women worldwide.

However, Malone’s booming business empire was jeopardized in 1927 when her husband filed for divorce. He demanded half of the business and received a settlement of two hundred thousand dollars. She moved her business headquarters to Chicago in search of a fresh start. Malone remained in business and had thirty-two branches of the Poro school in the 1950s despite the 1929 stock market crash and a series of lawsuits.

Malone donated money to various African American organizations and charitable institutions. She served as the president of the board of directors of the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home. The institution was renamed the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center in 1946. The street on which it is located is called the Annie Malone Drive, a reminder of the transformational power of economic empowerment.