Annie Turnbo: Founder of Poro College & Pioneer Manufacturer of Cosmetics Products

Anniie Turnbo - Poro Hair Care Products - Wonderful Hair Grower

Considered to be one of the first African American women to become a millionaire, Annie Minerva Turnbo was born in Metropolis, Illinois on August 9, 1869 to Robert and Isabella Turnbo. Her parents died when she was young, and she would be raised by an older sister.

The 10th of 11 children, Annie Turnbo attended high school in Peoria, Illinois where she discovered an affinity for chemistry but never finished high school due to frequent illnesses. 

Turnbo took an interest in hair styling. In particular, she had in interest in developing a better way to straighten African American hair without damaging it. She envisioned a way of doing so without using soap, goose fat, heavy oils, butter and bacon grease and other materials that damaged the scalp and caused broken hair follicles.

As a result, she developed and manufactured her own line of hair straighteners, special oils, and hair-stimulant products for African-American women.

By the early 1900s, Annie Turnbo developed a formula that worked and called it “The Wonderful Hair Grower,” which she began to sell door-to-door after moving to St. Louis.

In addition to going door-to-door, she and trained assistants traveled to black churches and community centers at a time of racial discrimination and violence, giving demonstrations, providing free hair and scalp treatments. She held press conferences and advertised in black newspapers.

Turnbo moved her business to 2223 Market Street in St. Louis in 1902. The city’s economy was booming in preparation for the 1904 World’s Fair. There, she opened the doors to the third physical Poro College location in a three‐​story building, employing 175 people.

Poro College operated as a cosmetology school, beauty care distribution factory, training center, and is described as “a monument to black excellence built in the heart of St. Louis’ historic black district of the Ville.” It enabled young black women to pursue their high school and college educations by providing them with jobs and lodging.

By 1920, Turnbo’s hair care empire employed 300 people locally and 75,000 agents nationally. Poro’s students were mostly black women, such as future beauty care entrepreneur Madam C.J, Walker who worked for her as a sales agent before starting her own company, offering similar beauty products and distribution.

Poro expanded the range of economic opportunity for its students, teaching them how to care for hair, manufacture hair pieces, and perform manicures and massages. It provided a 10-day review course for its agents who sold Poro hair care products as independent contractors.

In 1930, Turnbo relocated her business to Chicago. Shortly thereafter, the St. Louis Poro College and her fortune declined.

At the time of her death to complications from a stroke at Provident Hospital on May 10, 1957, Poro beauty colleges still operated in over thirty cities across the nation.

As one of the first African American female millionaires, her goal was to empower others to overcome hardship and achieve success. She is buried at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.


Like this post? Stop by and read "Maggie Walker: First Female African-American Bank President in the United States." Maggie Walker founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank to provide economic empowerment to women and help strengthen Richmond's emerging black middle class.

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