Black History Highlight: The Annie Malone Story

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February is Black History Month. And if you’re lucky, you’ll be celebrating it in St. Louis.

Why is that, you ask.

First, because in St. Louis the entire month is filled with outstanding, quality Black History Month programs. In fact, so many programs abound in Missouri this month that it takes a book to lists them all (more on that later).

Second, with few exceptions, there’s hardly a more fitting place to celebrate the history of African-Americans in our country as St. Louis history is so intertwined with the rich history of black Americans.

As a border state during the Civil War, Missouri’s position was pivotal to the events that transpired. While Missouri entered the Union in 1821 as a slave state, “a free Negro class existed through the period of slavery in Missouri,” according to blackarchives.org.

In fact, a woman known only as Ester in Spanish documents was the first woman of color to receive a land grant in St. Louis. In 1793 she received a tract of land on what is now North Second Street in Laclede’s Landing.

And the memory of Jacques Clamorgan, a black West Indian who made a fortune in the fur trade and land speculation and lived in the same area, is preserved in “Clamorgan Alley,” another street in the Landing. A prominent early St. Louisan, Clamorgan held Spanish land grants totaling nearly one million acres in the Louisiana Territory.

Consider the story of Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who bought her freedom–and that of her son–in St. Louis and moved to Washington, D.C. where she became Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidante. Following the Civil War, Keckley wrote and published her autobiography. Entitled Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868), the book not only documented her life as a slave but painted a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln and her family. It was controversial, largely for what was considered her intrusion on the privacy of the Lincolns.

Still, slavery was a sad reality for thousands of African-Americans. When Dred Scott sued for his freedom and that of his wife and two daughters in St. Louis in 1857, the eyes of the country were on St. Louis. Scott lost that and subsequent suits but later a former owner purchased his freedom for him. The case has been cited as one of the causes of the War Between the States. (You can learn more about the Dred Scott case at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.)

Following the war and despite the Emancipation Proclamation, life was a struggle for most African-Americans as discrimination continued. But despite the hardships and conditions of the times, many African-Americans persevered and achieved.

Some folks are remembered because they achieved a certain amount of fame–think Scott Joplin and later W. C. Handy and Josephine Baker–but others who had a great impact on American life are often left in the dusty books of history.

We believe Black History Month is an opportunity to learn a little more about the many African-Americans whose names are lost to history–or at least less often mentioned–but who left the world a little better place for being here. When you consider the racial barriers they faced, their accomplishments are all the more noteworthy.

Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find interesting, inspiring stories galore.

One of the most fascinating chapters of African-American history in St. Louis revolves around the beauty business in the early 1900s and the woman who became one of the country’s first women millionaires of any race.

Her name–Annie Turnbo Malone–lives on in St. Louis with a street bearing her name and the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center (originally the St. Louis Orphans Home), which she helped create. Every May the community celebrates Malone’s memory with a major parade named in her honor.

Malone was not only an inventor and business woman but a philanthropist, civic leader and a true “job creator” providing meaningful employment for almost 200 St. Louis women giving them economic independence they would not otherwise have had.

Annie Turnbo Malone was born in 1877 in Metropolis, IL. but her parents died when she was young, and she moved to Peoria to be with an older sister. By the early 1900s she was living in Lovejoy (Brooklyn), IL. across the river from St. Louis where her early interest in hair textures led her to develop a product that could straighten curly African-American hair without damaging either the hair or the scalp. She then developed a line of beauty products for African-American women and went on to receive the first patent for the hot comb.

In 1902 Malone moved to St. Louis where she and her associates sold her products door-to-door. She married briefly but was soon divorced. Years later–in 1914–she married Aaron Eugene Malone, a former teacher and Bible salesman.

Malone was also a creative marketing and saleswoman who utilized press conferences, ads in black newspapers and personal tours of the South to help promote her products.

To house her offices and manufacturing operations, Malone built the $1 million Poro College complex in 1918 in St. Louis’ Ville, an upper middle class black neighborhood. The complex also included a training center to give cosmetology and sales training to her employees and provide facilities for civic, religious and social functions.

It was said about 75,000 women were employed in franchised Poro outlets in North and South America, Africa and the Philippines helping make Malone a millionaire.

According to the history of Annie Malone, “Malone lived conservatively and gave away much of her fortune to help other African-Americans. At one time, it is believed that she was supporting two full-time students in every black land-grant college in the United States.”

As one of the country’s first major black philanthropists, Malone donated large amounts of money to many charities. She gave Howard University Medical School its largest gift ever from an African-American. Her generosity extended to family members and employees.

Malone’s numerous charitable donations included a $25,000 donation that helped build the St. Louis Colored YWCA. She also donated the land for the St. Louis Colored Orphans’ Home and raised most of the building’s construction costs. She served on the home’s executive board from 1919 to 1943. Three years later the home was renamed the Annie Malone Children’s Home.

Insider’s tip: Annie Malone’s name, along with others who lived in the neighborhood including Dick Gregory and Robert Guillaume, can be seen on a soaring monument in The Ville, the neighborhood that was home to many black professionals, businessmen and entertainer at a time when blacks were excluded from other areas. The Annie Malone Children’s Home is also located there.

A sampling of Black History Month programs in St. Louis

Speakers, concerts and programs on African art, jewelry-making and poetry are just some of the activities presented for Black History Month in St. Louis. There are so many programs that the state of Missouri has published a book listing them all. This year’s theme is “Women Who Dared To Dream.” You can pick up a book at St. Louis area libraries.

Here is a sample of events:

Dred Scott Reenactment, every Saturday and Sunday this month at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis and African-American History Films will be shown several times a week.

“Blacks in the West” every Saturday and Sunday afternoon during February at the Gateway Arch.

“The Pawnbroker,” a film about Civil Rights leader Whitney Young on Feb. 6 at the Missouri History Museum. During the 1950s and 60s Young navigated a divided society and “challenged America’s white businesses and political leaders directly,” according to the museum’s website. But his efforts to open the doors for equal opportunity “were often attacked by Black Americans who felt his methods were in contrast with the Black Power Movement at the time.”

“Celebrate the Gospel,” an annual concert of traditional and modern renditions of inspirational gospel music by the St. Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Catholic Church Choir, Feb. 10 at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Anita Hill Keynote Speech, Feb. 17 at the recently reopened St. Louis Central Library in downtown St. Louis. Hill, author and professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University, is known for her groundbreaking work raising awareness nationwide on the issue of sexual harassment.

St. Louis Symphony Black History Month Celebration, Friday, Feb. 22 at Powell Hall in Grand Center featuring the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON® Chorus, the St. Louis Symphony and vocalist Wintley Phipps.

Black Aviators in History, Thursday, Feb. 28 at the Maplewood Public Library in Maplewood where Harold Moss, president of the St. Louis Gateway Eagles will speak on the history of black aviators.

And check out the multi-day Celebrate Black History Month in Missouri trip idea with a day and a half of St. Louis attractions celebrating African-Americans.

Guest Blogger Kathie Sutin a freelance writer from St. Louis, Missouri contributed this blog.