Annie Turnbo Malone is having a moment . . . just not quite her moment.
Yes, the former Peorian was recently inducted into Peoria’s African American Hall of Fame Museum. The St. Louis-based Annie Malone Historical Society has been working to revive her legacy for almost a decade. Two biographies have been written about her in the last five years, including one by her great-great-nephew, Peorian Agbara Bryson.
But the new Netflix mini-series based on the life of Madame C.J. Walker managed to distort Malone and her legacy without actually mentioning her name.
Malone’s supporters thought “Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” the pioneering Black hair care entrepreneur, would also introduce a broad audience to Malone’s trailblazing role in the Black hair care industry.
They were so wrong.
Instead, the creators of “Self-Made” use a fictional character named Addie Monroe to weave the loaded politics of light-skin/dark-skin/good-hair/bad-hair into the story line. The real Annie Malone was replaced by a fake Addie Monroe who is conjured into a mulatto, the light-skinned, long-haired rival always trying to thwart Walker’s ambitions.
The series takes other liberties and invents other characters, but it gives a passing nod to two indisputable facts. Walker started by selling the real Malone’s “Wonderful Hair Grower.” After Walker came up with her own self-named product, the two eventually became tough business competitors.
The era of Jim Crow segregation, racial terror, and the first wave of the Great Migration happened to coincide with a period known as a golden age of Black-owned businesses. From 1883 to 1913, the number of Black-owned businesses grew from 10,000 to 40,000, according to Harvard Business Review.
It’s hard to imagine two Black female entrepreneurs who had greater influence or more impact at the turn of the twentieth century. They reached the top of an emerging field created by and for Black women, a market all but invisible in the mainstream business world.
Malone founded Poro Company, based in St. Louis and later, Chicago. Walker led Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co., based in Indianapolis. Both built multimillion-dollar companies, sparking a business rivalry and long, if little-known, Black history debate about which woman gained millionaire status first. “Self-Made” twisted the debate into knots.
Bryson’s initial anticipation turned to increasing disappointment the longer he watched. He understands the phrase ‘inspired by’ in the title. “But the dramatization, to me, took the story way out of context.”
Linda Nance, founder of the Annie Malone Historical Society, says the series disrespects both women.
The society was flooded with calls, emails, and comments on social media after “Self-Made” began airing. Most questioned the depiction of Annie Malone, alias Addie Monroe, Nance says. But a few thought the Monroe character represented an accurate portrayal of Annie Malone. They threatened to stop supporting anything connected to Malone, including two of her most lasting legacies in St. Louis, an annual parade and a child welfare agency, both named in her honor.
“That’s scary as I don’t know what,” Nance says. “If someone took the time to write an email or post on Instagram, how many others are thinking like that?”
Malone’s accomplishments have been overshadowed by Walker’s legendary status for decades. Malone revivalists argue Malone did everything Walker did and Malone almost always did it first.
Speaking strictly of the early black beauty culture pioneers, Nance says Malone was the first to build a million-dollar fortune. She was worth an estimated $14 million in the 1920s, according to some accounts.
“But I have stopped saying first of anything, I say first among,” she says. “For me the most important thing is their accomplishments, not who was first.”
Both women were strivers who lifted as they climbed. Their businesses and beauty colleges employed hundreds and paved the way for thousands of black women to be more than Mammies and maids. Poro-trained women and women trained in the ‘Walker system’ were more than the Mary Kay saleswomen of their time. Malone and Walker offered incentives, encouraging them to buy property, donate to charitable causes, and uplift the race. Both were well-known for history-making contributions to colleges, social agencies, and civil rights organizations.
Malone conveyed her goals in a 1922 Poro publication. “Poro College is consecrated to the uplift of humanity – Race women in particular.”
Malone was born in the late 1800s in Metropolis, Ill. After her parents died, she ended up in the Peoria area living with a sister, Ada, who was married to William Moody. (The Moody family history is a fascinating chapter in central Illinois history, stretching from Sparland to Eureka.)
Malone, then Annie Minerva Turnbo, attended Peoria High School. She developed an interest in chemistry and hair care. After moving to Lovejoy, Ill. (also known as Brooklyn), Malone began selling products door-to-door. By 1902, she moved to St. Louis and business boomed. One of her early clients, Sarah Breedlove, who would later be known as Madame C.J. Walker, became a Poro agent. The rest is a rich history, little of which made it into “Self-Made.”
Bryson and Nance are among those trying to restore Malone to public memory. Bryson is sifting through old family records and documents related to Malone and Poro. Nance and the historical society want to establish a headquarters dedicated to Malone’s history that teaches adult education and financial literacy skills, along with art and a Saturday morning reading program for children.
The question is why, outside of St. Louis, was Malone forgotten in the first place? Malone outlived Walker, who died in 1919. She outlived Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia, who died in 1931, and A’Lelia’s adopted daughter, Mae Walker Perry, who died in 1945.
Success was a whirlwind in Walker’s rags-to-riches story. She went from laundress to one of the wealthiest women in the country in less than 20 years, then died at the height of her success. Her daughter A’Lelia’s lavish lifestyle and patronage of the Harlem Renaissance enhanced Walker’s legend.
Malone remained in St. Louis from 1902 to 1930, then moved her entire operation, including several hundred employees, to Chicago after a messy, public divorce. She bought an entire city block and resumed business. However, tax problems and lawsuits drained the once-thriving business.
By the time Malone died in 1957, Walker had already been gone almost 40 years. Nance suspects the reason one is well-known and the other is nearly forgotten has to do with marketing and demeanor. Malone didn’t market herself; she says, she marketed her products.
Both women’s lives were intertwined. They were both orphans, just one generation out slavery, Nance adds. “And what they did mattered.”
For more information about the Annie Malone Historical Society, go to anniemalonehistoricalsociety.org.
For more information or to order “The Hidden And Real Story of Annie Malone,” by Agbara Bryson, call 208-8778.