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Two Extraordinary African-American Entrepreneurs

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As the 19th century neared its end, two African-American women became rivals as they became millionaires in the beauty-care industry. Annie Turnbo Pope Malone and Madam (Sarah) C.J. Walker were wildly successful entrepreneurs at a time when both blacks and women were marginalized by society. Annie and Sarah broke racial and sexual barriers; they created economic independence for an army of young black female employees; and they established black colleges and became renowned philanthropists.

Entrepreneurs are the unsung champions of human freedom and civil society. Their role in creating freedom is often overlooked because they bequeath no books of theory; they found no schools of thought. Instead, they create wealth and opportunities that enrich society and enable the employment that makes others economically independent. That is particularly true of Annie and Sarah because they offered employment to black women, whose options were often domestic service or other menial labor.

The encyclopedic African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary, by John N. Ingham and Lynne B. Feldman, described the impact of Poro, Annie’s company: “In 1922 … Poro employed 175 people in St. Louis alone. African-American women from throughout the world represented the Poro product line in such locales as Canada, the Philippines, Africa, and South America, where, in total, almost 75,000 jobs were created.” A’Lelia Perry Bundles, Sarah’s great-great-granddaughter and biographer, wrote, “The estimates of the number of people employed by Madam Walker varies [sic] widely. In her factory and office there were usually somewhere between fifteen and thirty employees. Her sales force, a multi-level sales operation, had, by her claim, in 1919, more than 20,000 agents.”

The jobs made black women (and sometimes black men) better able to control their own circumstances and live on their own terms; the jobs brought personal freedom.

The entwined stories of Annie and Sarah demonstrate the power of entrepreneurship and economic freedom to break through cultural barriers. Sarah once explained her incredible career: “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”

Annie Turnbo Pope Malone (1869–1957)

Annie Minerva Turnbo was born on August 9, 1869, in Metropolis, Illinois, to parents who had been slaves. The tenth of 11 children, she was orphaned at a young age and became a hairdresser to make a living. Her clients were exclusively black because of the prevailing social taboos.

By the age of 20, Annie had created her own product line of shampoo and scalp treatments that could straighten coarse hair and promote growth. The latter was particularly important in the 19th century, as it was commonplace for women to start losing their hair at a young age. The lack of indoor heating and plumbing as well as lower standards of hygiene meant that people washed their hair infrequently. In turn, that promoted scalp diseases that caused hair loss. Such loss was particularly common among black women who used goose fat, heavy oils, or harsh chemicals to straighten their hair. But Annie’s new straightener was effective without causing damage. Along with her “Wonderful Hair Grower” treatment, the straightener became a mainstay of her Poro line, a West African word that referred to “physical and spiritual growth.” Later in life, Annie would refer to herself as “Madam Poro.”

With fast-selling products in tow, Annie jumped into a buggy and drove down city streets throughout Illinois, pausing only to give open-air speeches on the marvels of her line. Her business quickly expanded to include other beauty products, including a pressing iron and hot comb for which she registered a patent.

In 1902 Annie relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, which boasted the fourth-largest African-American population in America. Because she was a woman and black, many of the traditional marketing means were closed to her; for example, drugstore retailers often refused to carry her products. So Annie established a unique marketing strategy. She hired assistants who could testify to the products’ efficacy and sent them door to door as saleswomen. The representatives offered free demonstrations and hair treatments in which they taught women how to use Poro products, including a special pressing comb.

One of the St. Louis assistants was the woman who would become Madam (Sarah) C.J. Walker.

Madam C.J. Walker (1867–1919)

Sarah Breedlove (later Walker) met the world on December 23, 1867, in Louisiana, where her parents had been slaves and were now sharecroppers. One of six Breedlove children, Sarah was orphaned at the age of 7 and worked in the cotton fields to survive. Married at 14 years old, she became a widow and a single mother to daughter Lelia at the age of 20; thereafter, she moved to St. Louis to be with family.

When a second marriage failed, Breedlove lost little time in becoming engaged to prominent newspaperman Charles Joseph Walker. At the same time, she encountered Annie Turnbo, who had set up a Poro business in her neighborhood. As noted, Poro addressed a chronic problem, one with Sarah wrestled: hair loss. Impressed with the product, Sarah embraced the opportunity to become a representative. The job paid twice as much as her regular work as a washerwoman and also brought greater prestige.

In July 1905, with a large supply of Poro products, Sarah moved to Denver, where she initially acted as a sales agent for the line. Her role changed, however, upon meeting a pharmacist named Edmund L. Scholtz, who did a chemical analysis of Turnbo’s “Wonderful Hair Grower”; he suggested improvements to the formula. Soon Sarah was promoting her own hair formula, “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower,” which she sold through a marketing and distribution system that mimicked Madam Poro’s. The new Madam claimed her formula had come to her in a series of dreams that were a response to prayers for help with her hair loss. The older Madam cried “foul!”

In his book Ladies for Liberty, John Blundell describes the ensuing bitterness between the two “Madams.” He writes, “The split between Annie and Sarah spilled out into the black press. Annie put out advertisements warning ‘BEWARE OF IMITATIONS,’ specifically targeting Sarah’s products…. While Sarah went off on a sales trip … Lelia kept the business running in Denver.” Meanwhile Madam Poro “established a new salon in the same street in direct open competition.” She also copyrighted the brand name “Poro” to discourage imitators.

Upon her return from the sales trip, Sarah declared Denver to be too small a market and moved her operations to St. Louis. Blundell explains, “By this time, she wanted to form an army of agents who would become economically independent. For Sarah, her business was not just a beauty product but a way to economic empowerment for black women in a market economy.”

The parallel pioneers

The parallels between Annie and Sarah are striking, both personally and professionally. Each was a daughter of ex-slaves; each had parents who died during her childhood. Born into poverty, Annie and Sarah worked exhausting hours from a young age merely to survive. Each had more than one husband. Sarah married three times. Annie married twice; her first husband is only vaguely recorded as a “Mr. Pope” whom she divorced because he was interfering with business; her second husband was Aaron Eugene Malone, a former teacher and Bible salesman, whom she divorced after 13 years.

Professionally, each woman targeted the same market: African-American women who purchased hair-care and beauty products. Each used the same organizational structure of franchises with door-to-door representatives. The franchises were also supported by a heavy campaign of advertising in black magazines and newspapers. African-American Business Leaders described the franchise system created by Annie: “She embarked on a massive tour throughout the South, demonstrating her preparations and techniques, and recruiting women whom she then trained to administer and sell her line of products….” Along the tour route, Annie pitched her product at women’s clubs and black churches. The women she trained as representatives trained other women in turn.

Sarah used much the same system. Her representatives were called “Walker agents” and were required to sign contracts promising to use Walker products exclusively. They also vowed to abide by a specific regime of personal hygiene that made them more presentable; Sarah fervently believed that a respectable appearance and demeanor were preconditions for social and economic success. The agents wore an identifiable “uniform”: a white shirtwaist tucked into a demure black skirt. They carried a black satchel that contained everything needed for dressing hair.

That method of advertising, distributing, and marketing was highly profitable for both women. Indeed, The Guinness Book of World Records listed Sarah as the first female millionaire whose fortune was self-made. Other sources argue that Annie deserves that title.

A contributing factor in their remarkable success was the training offered to representatives. In 1908 Sarah opened the “Lelia College for Walker Hair Culturists” in Pittsburgh. For $25, women could receive the mail-order training they needed to represent Walker hair products. The school of cosmetology was overseen by Lelia, and it trained thousands of agents. In early 1910, Sarah moved her base of operation to Indianapolis to take advantage of its extensive railroad connections; there she built a large manufacturing plant and a laboratory and opened a second college of brick and mortar. Leila moved to New York City to open yet another college and so expand business along the East Coast.

Perhaps partly in competition, Annie opened Poro College in 1918. The huge five-story complex of buildings not only served as a training school but also contained a factory and Poro’s business offices. With such niceties as a gymnasium and theater, Poro College became the leading community center for St. Louis’s black residents. The National Negro Business League made its headquarters in the complex, and blacks who could not receive service in the city’s fine eating establishments were welcome at Poro’s elegant restaurant. The complex became known as “The Showplace of St. Louis.”

Parallel philanthropists and activists

Annie and Sarah had a keen interest in both the betterment of African-Americans and the well-being of their work force. The latter concern may have been prompted partly by good business judgment: a satisfied work force reduces the turnover of trained personnel.

Sarah created a cohesive sense of family in her agents by organizing Walker Clubs. These agent-operated clubs promoted community service and charitable work; the club with the most impressive record of service received prizes. In 1917 the first national convention of Walker agents was held at a time when professional women were a rarity, let alone a conference of black businesswomen. The agents were also encouraged to campaign politically for black rights. At the “Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America” convention, Sarah addressed a political concern on which she would focus.

In May and July 1917, the worst episode of labor and race-related violence in 20th-century America erupted in East St. Louis. In May a mob of white men estimated at 3,000 strong began to attack blacks and their property. Although the National Guard was called in, the newspaper The Chicago Defender stated that 40–150 black people were killed during July alone; dozens had been lynched. Approximately 6,000 blacks were homeless when an entire neighborhood was torched. Sarah, then living in New York, was among the group of Harlem leaders who went directly to the president to present a petition requesting a federal anti-lynching law. She later contributed $5,000 to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) anti-lynching campaign, which was the largest donation the organization had received to that date.

At the 1917 convention, Sarah stated from the stage, “This is the greatest country under the sun. But we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice. We should protest until the American sense of justice is so aroused that such affairs as the East St. Louis riot be forever impossible.”

While rousing her agents to community service and politics, Sarah also offered them company benefits, including mutual aid and insurance.

Annie used different incentives to motivate her employees and to produce loyalty. In African-American Business Leaders, Ingham and Feldman stated,

Turnbo-Malone was determined to act as a unifying force for women…. In her advertising brochures she called for “ambitious women to enter a profitable profession” and promised them economic independence as Poro agents. Turnbo-Malone had devised for her employees a system of incentives to reward their outstanding achievements and to encourage promising trainees to work harder. One of the several awards given annually was a gold gift presented to those who invested in real estate or helped their parents to do so….

Renowned as philanthropists, the two women also contributed generously to charities and their communities. For example, Annie helped to finance the construction of a new building for the St. Louis Colored Orphans’ Home, which was renamed the Annie Malone Children’s Home in her honor.

Complex and fascinating lives

Sarah died suddenly in 1919 after speaking at an anti-lynching rally. She left what was then a huge fortune of more than a million dollars. Two-thirds went to organizations such as the NAACP and charitable groups; the rest went to her daughter, who became president of the Walker empire.

Annie and her husband underwent a high-profile, six-year battle in a divorce that forced Poro College into court-ordered receivership. Although the court granted her sole ownership in May 1927, the federal government sued her for tax delinquencies several times between 1933 to 1951. The government finally took the business. She died at the age of 87 on May 10, 1957, having lost most of a fortune that was once estimated at $14 million. Her nieces and nephews inherited the remaining $100,000.

These portraits of Annie and Sarah are merely glimpses of two complex and fascinating lives for which book-length treatments would be necessary to render justice.

In reading dozens of biographical sketches, however, a theme emerges frequently within the commentaries. The women are admired for their hard work and the vision with which they conquered all odds to become so successful. Their business accomplishments are certainly acknowledged but their contributions to advancing the status of blacks are often placed in a separate category, as though their making money was of less significance or less noble than their donating it to causes. I suggest that the contrary is true. Indeed, since making money is a prerequisite to donating it, the former is more important.

The African-American authors, political activists, and policymakers who fought racism and insisted on equal rights should be roundly applauded. But the entrepreneurs who provided independence to hundreds of thousands of blacks contributed no less to the betterment of their race. If the entrepreneurs made a huge profit in doing so, then they should be applauded twice: first for personally rising above their own wretched circumstances; and second for helping so many others do the same.

This article was originally published in the December 2012 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).