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Riverfront Museum Exhibit Helps Bring Annie Malone Out Of The Shadows By Pam Adams

By the time Chajuana Trawick completed her doctoral dissertation on Annie Turnbo Malone and her Poro College in 2011, she had compiled one of the most extensive documents of Malone’s legacy available.

Yet, when Trawick visited Peoria recently, she learned even more about the godmother of the Black haircare industry. She met Malone’s great-great-nephew, Peorian James Agbara Bryson. They visited the house Malone built for relatives and the bank she did business with, both in Sparland. She saw Malone’s personalized briefcase and other family heirlooms currently on display at Peoria Riverfront Museum.

“It was really inspirational to meet someone from her family, to see all the information he has that I had never seen before,” said Trawick, endowed chair and associate professor of fashion business and design at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.

James Agbara Bryson and Chajuana Trawick on recent visit to Annie Malone exhibit at Peoria Riverfront Museum.

Photos courtesy of Dr. John Wright of St. Louis

Malone’s legacy is the centerpiece of the museum exhibit on African-Americans’ determination to build family and community before, during and after slavery. The exhibit, “Community: African American Freedom, Perseverance and Leadership During Migration,” also highlights the lives of Mother Priscilla Baltimore and ‘Free Frank’ McWorter, founders of two of the first all-Black towns in Illinois.

Both formerly enslaved, Mother Baltimore established Lovejoy and McWorter founded New Philadelphia decades before the Civil War during an era when, by law, Illinois was essentially a sundown state closed to Blacks seeking freedom and full citizenship. Malone lived in Peoria and Lovejoy before moving to St. Louis in the early 1900s. Just one generation removed from slavery, she built communities through building a business empire devoted to training and employing some 75,000 thousand to uplift humanity, “Race women in particular,” as a 1922 Poro publication put it.

A dedication and open house for the exhibit will be 3 p.m. Aug. 26 at the museum. Before the open house, Bryson will host a book signing at 2 p.m. for the latest edition of his biography of his great-great-aunt, “The Hidden Story of Annie Turnbo Malone, the First Black Female Millionaire.” The museum will also premiere a new WTVP documentary on Malone.

Annie Malone and the legacy of Poro College are in the midst of a renaissance.

Her entrepreneurship, philanthropy and civic commitment has long been overshadowed, most recently by the 2020 Netflix series “Self-Made,” inspired by the life of Madame C.J. Walker. People familiar with Malone’s history, including Bryson and Trawick, were outraged by the series’ fabricated villain who could have been confused with the real Annie Malone. But the fictional slap helped generate new interest in Malone’s extraordinary accomplishments.

While mainstream culture generally portrayed Black women as Aunt Jemima and other versions of the ‘Mammy’ stereotype, Malone created avenues for Black women to define and support themselves, their families and their communities. As a young woman in Peoria, she developed an interest in chemistry and healthy hair care. By the 1920s, she had transformed her early interests into a multi-million-dollar business based in St. Louis. She was a philanthropist known nationally for her contributions to historically Black colleges, organizations, and individuals striving to uplift the race. In fact, Malone trained Madame C.J. Walker on how to use and sell Malone’s “Wonderful Hair Grower.”

Trawick, a board member of St. Louis’ Annie Malone Historical Society, visited Peoria for an educational documentary she and a Lindenwood colleague are working on about Malone. She has written a series of children’s books about Malone.

Linda Nance, founding president of the Annie Malone Historical Society, curated a recent exhibit on Malone and Poro at the Field House Museum in St. Louis. Nance is preparing to move the exhibit to Harris-Stowe State University, a historically Black university in St. Louis, and working on a play about a crucial point in Malone’s trajectory, which occurred on what is now part of Harris-Stowe’s campus. She plans to attend the Riverfront Museum’s dedication.

Bryson is working with local business owners and others in his efforts to make Peoria part of a tourism destination of key stops in Malone’s life, including Peoria, St. Louis and Chicago, where she moved the business after a messy, public divorce.

Malone died in Chicago in 1957. She left the business to nieces and nephews who tried to carry on, unsuccessfully, after a series of devastating setbacks.

Now people like Bryson, Nance and Trawick, and organizations like Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Annie Malone Historical Society are building relationships to bring her and her legacy out of the shadows.