In 1896, the Supreme Court’s Plessy vs. Ferguson decision upheld Jim Crow laws, creating the “separate but equal” doctrine that would be the law of the land until 1965. This decision was the nail in the coffin for Reconstruction; it effectively excluded African Americans from the labor protections of trade unions and closed off their access to capital. Without capital, entire generations were trapped in a life of sharecropping or menial, low wage jobs.
But some head strong entrepreneurs found loopholes. Determined to make better future for themselves and their children, they started businesses with low start-up costs and set their sights on the one market White businesses weren’t interested in: the Black consumer. Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C.J. Walker were among those who dared to think about controlling their own futures and claiming financial independence. Their passions and ability to find ways past obstacles would make them the country’s first women self-made millionaires.
Annie Turnbo was born in 1869 to former slaves, the tenth of eleven children. Her father fought for the Union in the Civil War, while her mother and older siblings escaped from slavery in Kentucky and fled to Illinois. Turnbo was orphaned as a young girl but raised by an older sister. She had started classes at her segregated high school but dropped out due to frequent illness. Stuck at home, she and her sister often styled each other’s hair, which at the time was usually straightened with goose fat, heavy oil, caustic soap, or bacon grease. The harsh products often led to scalp problems, so Turnbo used her interest in chemistry to create better, gentler options.
Turnbo called her product Wonderful Hair Grower. Lacking access to loans for large scale production, she instead went door-to-door and travelled to fairs to give free samples and product demonstrations. After some success, Turnbo hired three women to help her with door to door sales. She moved to St. Louis and continued to grow her network of saleswomen. Finally, at the age of forty-five and now married to her second husband, Aaron Malone, Turnbo-Malone was able to invest her profits into opening her own store. She spent heavily on advertising in the Black press and travelled throughout the South, recruiting more women to sell her products. She paid well and offered opportunities for advancement, wanting others to gain the same financial freedoms she was starting to achieve.
After a dispute with one of her protégés, Turnbo-Malone started copyrighting her products under the name “Poro” - a West African term for a devotional society – to reflect her clients’ heritage. She then established Poro College, a cosmetology school. The school’s building housed the school, a dormitory, manufacturing facilities for her products, a retail store, meeting rooms, a 500-seat auditorium, and a chapel. Reflecting her commitment to investing in others, the College also served as a Black community center. The school focused on the whole person, teaching students how to walk, talk, and dress to maintain a professional image. The operation employed over one hundred and seventy-five people and enabled young Black women to pursue their high school and college educations by providing them with jobs and lodging.
In 1924, Missouri tax records show that Turnbo-Malone paid income taxes in excess of $40,000 – the highest amount paid by a state resident that year. She had not only become a millionaire; her wealth was estimated at one point to have reached $14 million. Yet despite her unprecedented wealth, Turnbo-Malone lived modestly and gave generously to the local Black YMCA and Howard University in Washington, D.C. She also became a benefactor for the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home. For her, success meant helping others rise up with her.
Unfortunately, her fortunes would eventually unravel. In 1927, her husband filed for divorce. As president of the company, he demanded half the business’ value. With support from her friend, Mary McLeod Bethune, Turnbo-Malone negotiated a divorce settlement of $200,000 and became the company’s sole proprietor. Soon after, she was forced to settle a series of lawsuits by former employees who tried to claim responsibility for Turnbo-Malone’s success. The business was further hindered by enormous debt to the government for unpaid real estate and excise taxes levied on hair-care products. Most of her assets had to be sold to satisfy government liens and lawsuits. At the time of her death in 1957 at the age of eighty-eight, it’s estimated that her estate was only worth $100,000.
But remember that protégé – the one whose actions prompted Annie to try to protect her business with copyrights? That woman became the one the Guinness Book of World Records would certify as the first female self-made millionaire. Her name was Madam C.J. Walker, and her path to wealth began when Malone hired her at a product demonstration at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Madam C.J. Walker was born as Sarah Breedlove in 1867. She was the first child born into freedom in a formerly enslaved family in Louisiana. Like Turnbo-Malone, Sarah was also orphaned as a young child and raised by an older sister. But unlike Turnbo-Malone, Sarah’s education was limited to three months of literacy lessons at her church’s Sunday School. By necessity, she started working as a domestic servant while she was still a child. To escape abuse from her brother-in-law, she married at fourteen. She had her only child, A'Lelia, at eighteen and was widowed by age twenty.
Seeking family support, Sarah moved with her daughter to St. Louis, where her three brothers made a living as barbers. She earned a meager $1.50 a day as a laundress. In an interview she gave later in life, she told the New York Times, “I was at my tubs one morning with a heavy wash before me. As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds, I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?”
Partly due to the harsh chemicals she had to use as a laundress, and partly due to the poor diet, poor hygiene, and lack of bathing common among the poor working class, Sarah suffered from severe dandruff and baldness. So a gentler product that promised to make a Black woman’s hair grow into a luxurious mane caught Sarah’s attention. When she met Annie Turnbo Malone at the World’s Fair, Sarah eagerly agreed to become one of Malone’s saleswomen. Success followed. Two years later, she married her third husband and took his name – Mrs. Charles Joseph (C.J.) Walker. Mr. Walker sold advertising for newspapers and his new wife took full advantage of his knowledge, becoming a shrewd marketer in her own right. The couple moved to Denver, and while Walker continued to sell Malone’s products, she also developed her own formulas for hair care and cosmetics. Emboldened by her own success, she decided to leave Turnbo-Malone and launched her own line with the suspiciously similar name of “Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The Madam was added to give an air of French sophistication, and using the same name as an already established (but not yet copyrighted) product certainly helped with product recognition. Annie Turnbo-Malone was furious and accused Madam C.J. of stealing her formula. But the mixture of petroleum jelly and sulfur had been used in various concoctions for years and Turnbo-Malone was powerless to stop her new competitor.
Mr. Walker found himself divorced from Madam C.J. after only six years of marriage. She relocated to Pittsburgh and opened Leila College to train beauticians in the “Walker System” while A’Leila stayed in Denver to run their flourishing mail order business. The company eventually added operations in Indianapolis and Harlem.
The Walker System trained women as stylists, but more importantly, it trained them to be successful saleswomen who made healthy commissions that could lead to financial independence. The college taught women business and budgeting skills, enabling many of the company’s management team to be comprised of women. Sarah formed the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culturists Union of America to further protect labor rights.
Madam Walker’s marketing prowess is at least in part why her success is better known than Annie Turnbo-Malone’s. But like Turnbo-Malone, Walker was compelled to share her millionaire wealth. She contributed to the funding to a YMCA in Indianapolis and scholarship funds for the Tuskegee Institute, Bethune-Cookman University, and other schools. She contributed $5,000 ($78,000 in today’s dollars) to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund – the largest individual gift the NAACP had ever received. At her death she bequeathed $100,000 to orphanages and needy institutions and directed that two-thirds of her estate’s future profits to go to charity.
Although Walker counted W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington among her acquaintances, Booker was critical of the beauty industry. He (rightly) worried that hair-straighteners (and, worse, skin-bleaching creams) would lead to the internalization of white concepts of beauty. Mindful of this, and ever the master of public relations, Walker often declared that her dream was not to emulate whites. Instead, she claimed that her products were divinely inspired and African in their origin.
Although Annie Turnbo-Malone died in 1957, just a few years before the success of the Civil Rights Movement, Walker died at the early age of fifty-one in 1919 due to high blood pressure and kidney failure. However, her company stayed in business until 1981. Her self-promotion and remarkable financial success earned her a place in the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y. in 1993. In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Madam C.J. Walker commemorative stamp as part of its Black Heritage series. In 2022, Mattel issued a Walker Barbie doll as part of their Inspiring Women doll collection.
To learn more about Annie Malone, we recommend Annie Turnbo Malone, Hair Entrepreneur
To learn more about Madam CJ Walker, we recommend Madam Walker, The First Black American Woman to Be a Self-Made Millionaire