PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) – Did you know a pioneer in the Black haircare industry and one of the nation’s first Black women millionaires has roots in Central Illinois?
James Agbara Bryson has made it his life’s work to share the story of Annie Turnbo Malone: a Black haircare trailblazer, millionaire and philanthropist. She also happens to be Bryson’s great-grandaunt.
“People need to know about who she was, what she did and better than all that, she was here from Peoria, one generation from slavery and was able to incorporate all those great things that we really need today,” said Bryson.
Malone’s path to that point of success stems from perseverance. Her story lines the walls of the Peoria Riverfront Museum’s “Community: African American Freedom, Perseverance & Leadership During Migration” exhibit.
“Annie Malone, I feel like embodies what Peoria history is at large and it just so happens that she was a Black woman,” said Everley Davis, the museum’s Student Engagement Coordinator.
Malone was born in 1869, in Metropolis, Illinois to her formerly enslaved parents. She was orphaned at a young age, prompting her and her younger sister, Laura to move 300 miles north to Peoria. That’s where they lived with their older sister, Ada Turnbo. Malone went on to attend Peoria High School, but couldn’t finish because of illness.
“And it was my great-great-great grandmother known as Mother Moody who really took Annie out into the woods. Mother Moody was also an escaped slave, but she was also an herbist,” said Bryson. “So they went out in the woods and gathered the herbs and plants primarily at first to help Annie heal from whatever she had.”
In the process, Malone learned the hair health benefits of those herbs and plants. She started experimenting with different hair-care products, then developing, manufacturing and going door to door selling her own line of non-damaging hair straighteners and hair-stimulant products for Black women.
In 1917, Malone established Poro College, a cosmetology school in St. Louis, Missouri. The school and eventual franchise business ultimately created upwards of 75,000 jobs across the world. By the 1920’s, Malone became one of the country’s first Black women millionaires.
Davis said, “She didn’t just do something and petered out at the height of her career. It continued to keep going and I think part of that is her philanthropy. She didn’t just get rich for herself. She built a whole fleet, a generation of entrepreneurs and independent businesswomen.”
Bryson calls it a surreal experience to be a part of Malone’s legacy.
“I keep finding things and the more that I find the more amazed that I get,” said Bryson. “There is truly a spiritual connection. I’m guided by Aunt Annie.”
Davis finds longevity in this cross-cultural story and she hopes others see themselves in Malone.
“It’s great for people to recognize Peoria grown talent and honor that in a way that is deserved, but also being able to show that next generation of students what is able for them to achieve, what is out there. There is no benchmark or threshold that you cannot surpass no matter what comes in your way,” she said.
Later in the spring, the Peoria Riverfront Museum’s exhibit will be transformed and entirely dedicated to the story of Annie Malone.