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African American

Little-known tidbits about the people and the contributions of African-Americans to society.

Black Business in the Gilded Age: Poro Beauty College

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Poro hair & beauty culture - The present home of Poro hair and toilet preparations

Beauty culture was big business at the turn of the century, and just as the beauty industry liberated women like Helena Rubenstein, Harriet Hubbard Ayer, and Elizabeth Arden, among others, it also liberated black women. Madame C.J. Walker’s fame as the first black millionairess has overshadowed America’s other successful black beauty businesswoman, Annie Turnbo Malone. In fact, Malone and Walker were contemporaries, with Walker even getting her start in the beauty industry through Malone’s Poro company (this remains a controversial period in both women’s lives till this day!).

Poro hair & beauty culture - Anne M. Pope Turnbo-Malone; Founder

Malone, an amateur chemist, began experimenting with her own hair care products at a young age, and by the turn of the century, her “Wonderful Hair Grower” had become a staple in the cabinets of African-American women who were largely ignored by mainstream hair product companies. Malone built her business brick by brick–or rather foot by foot, since she sold her products door-to-door before setting up shop in St. Louis. St. Louis in the early 1900s was a thriving city, particularly in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (informally known as the St. Louis World’s Fair), and many African-Americans migrated from the South in search of better opportunities.

Within ten years of establishing her “Poro” brand in St. Louis, Malone had built an empire, both manufacturing beauty and hair products and running a college devoted to the education and uplift of St. Louis’s African-American population. According to Helen R. Houston, the Poro College building included “a manufacturing plant, a retail store where Poro products were sold, business offices, a 500-seat auditorium, dining and meeting rooms, a roof garden, dormitory, gymnasium, bakery, and chapel. It served the African-American community as a center for religious and social functions.”

Poro hair & beauty culture - Poro preparations for every texture of hair and skin

By the 1920s, Malone was a multi-millionaire, and her Poro brand a well-known name throughout the Americas, Africa, and the Philippines. She faced competition from African-American firms like Apex and from mainstream firms who (belatedly) realized the potential earnings in African-American beauty culture, but her business thrived even after her divorce and the vagaries of the Great Depression. By the time of Malone’s death in 1957, she had trained and employed nearly 100,000 women across the globe, and left a legacy of successful entrepreneurship.

Poro hair & beauty culture - cover

Images © NYPL Digital Gallery

Further Reading

On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A’Lelia Perry Bundles
Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975 by Susannah Walker
Styling Jim Crow: African American Beauty Training during Segregation by Dr. Julia Kirk Blackwelder
Family history of a relative who trained at Poro College
Annie Turnbo Malone – Historical Society of Missouri
Annie Malone’s Poro College
Annie Turnbo Malone: A Generous Entrepreneur

The Mid-Winter Assembly, Baltimore, 1912

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The Mid-Winter Assembly, Baltimore,1912
Published in February 1912 issue of The Crisis; photograph by Addison Scurlock. Click to enlarge.

In 1908, William H. Bishop, Jr. invariably identified as “belonging to one of the oldest families in Maryland,” who was clerk in the Internal Revenue Service for thirty-five years, succeeded in pulling together the various rival factions in Baltimore’s black elite into a single organization, known as The Baltimore Assembly. Bishop served as its president and John C. Matthews as vice-president. The annual mid-winter balls and post-Lenten receptions held under the auspices of The Assembly offered abundant evidence of “gentility.” Indeed, in 1910 one black journalist insisted that the social affairs of the “better class of Afro-Americans” who made up The Assembly surpassed even those sponsored by people “who claim to belong to the ‘smart set’ of the white race.” In order to insure that The Assembly would remain genteel, its officers decreed in 1912 that the Bunny Hug, Turkey Trot, and Gavotte, dances in vogue with the “smart set” in other cities, would not be allowed at the mid-winter ball in Baltimore; the invitations that year included a card listing those dances considered appropriate.

Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920 by Willard B. Gatewood

The Emancipation Proclamation Exposition of 1913

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A memento of the Emancipation Proclamation Exposition of the State of New York

In 1913, African-American New Yorkers celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation with a ten day exposition. Led by W.E.B. DuBois and members of the New York State Commission, the exposition served the purpose of uplifting African-Americans and refuting the violence, poverty, and stereotypes promulgated by the mainstream. The exposition mirrored those held in Paris or St. Louis or Chicago in scope and pageantry with its “fourteen classes of exhibits, including African industries, health and physique, labor and house service, trades and business, agriculture, professions, education, religion, and women and social uplift.” There was also a historical pageant held during four different days with “250 actors in full costume and orchestra music composed especially for the occasion by Major Charles Young, of the United States Army, and others.”

W.E.B. DuBois and members of the New York State Commission on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1913

In celebration, esteemed poet James Weldon Johnson composed a poem that was published in the New York Times:

On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

O brothers mine, to-day we stand
Where half a century sweeps our ken,
Since God, through Lincoln’s ready hand,
Struck off our bonds and made us men.

Just fifty years–a winter’s day–
As runs the history of a race;
Yet, as we look back o’er the way,
How distant seems our starting place!

Look farther back! Three centuries!
To where a naked, shivering score,
Snatched from their haunts across the seas,
Stood, wild-eyed, on Virginia’s shore.

Far, far the way that we have trod,
From heathen kraals and jungle dens,
To freedmen, freemen, sons of God,
Americans and Citizens.

A part of His unknown design,
We’ve lived within a mighty age;
And we have helped to write a line
On history’s most wondrous page.

A few black bondmen strewn along
The borders of our eastern coast,
Now grown a race, ten million strong,
An upward, onward, marching host.

Then let us here erect a stone,
To mark the place, to mark the time;
A witness to God’s mercies shown,
A pledge to hold this day sublime.

And let that stone an altar be,
Whereon thanksgivings we may lay
Where we, in deep humility,
For faith and strength renewed may pray.

With open hearts ask from above
New zeal, new courage and new pow’rs,
That we may grow more worthy of
This country and this land of ours.

For never let the thought arise
That we are here on sufferance bare;
Outcasts, asylumed ‘neath these skies,
And aliens without part or share.

This land is ours by right of birth,
This land is ours by right of toil;
We helped to turn its virgin earth,
Our sweat is in its fruitful soil.

Where once the tangled forest stood,–
Where flourished once rank weed and thorn,–
Behold the path-traced, peaceful wood,
The cotton white, the yellow corn.

To gain these fruits that have been earned,
To hold these fields that have been won,
Our arms have strained, our backs have burned,
Bent bare beneath a ruthless sun.

That Banner which is now the type
Of victory on field and flood–
Remember, its first crimson stripe
Was dyed by Attucks’ willing blood.

And never yet has come the cry–
When that fair flag has been assailed–
For men to do, for men to die,
That we have faltered or have failed.

We’ve helped to bear it, rent and torn,
Through many a hot-breath’d battle breeze
Held in our hands, it has been borne
And planted far across the seas.

And never yet, –O haughty Land,
Let us, at least, for this be praised–
Has one black, treason-guided hand
Ever against that flag been raised.

Then should we speak but servile words,
Or shall we hang our heads in shame?
Stand back of new-come foreign hordes,
And fear our heritage to claim?

No! stand erect and without fear,
And for our foes let this suffice–
We’ve bought a rightful sonship here,
And we have more than paid the price.

And yet, my brothers, well I know
The tethered feet, the pinioned wings,
The spirit bowed beneath the blow,
The heart grown faint from wounds and stings;

The staggering force of brutish might,
That strikes and leaves us stunned and dazed;
The long, vain waiting through the night
To hear some voice for justice raised.

Full well I know the hour when hope
Sinks dead, and ’round us everywhere
Hangs stifling darkness, and we grope
With hands uplifted in despair.

Courage! Look out, beyond, and see
The far horizon’s beckoning span!
Faith in your God-known destiny!
We are a part of some great plan.

Because the tongues of Garrison
And Phillips now are cold in death,
Think you their work can be undone?
Or quenched the fires lit by their breath?

Think you that John Brown’s spirit stops?
That Lovejoy was but idly slain?
Or do you think those precious drops
From Lincoln’s heart were shed in vain?

That for which millions prayed and sighed,
That for which tens of thousands fought,
For which so many freely died,
God cannot let it come to naught.

Further Reading:

November 1913 issue of The Crisis
Festivals of Freedom:
Meaning and Memory in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915 by Mitch Kachun