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Annie Malone: more than a parade

Annie Malone on roof garden of the Poro College Building, 25 April 1927. Photograph by W.C. Persons. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.
Courtesy Missouri History Museum
Annie Malone on roof garden of the Poro College Building, 25 April 1927. Photograph by W.C. Persons.

Sunday marks 105 years since the first Annie Malone May Day Parade in St. Louis, making it one of the longest-running African-American parades in the country.

But as another day of marching, music and dance arrives, historians and parade organizers worry that the event is the only association most people have with the name Annie Malone.

“The May Day Parade is probably the one single thing that ties people to the history of Annie Malone,” said Bill Young, interim CEO of the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center, which organizes the parade each year as a fundraiser. “A lot of people know about the parade. But they still don’t know what we do every day.”

Today the center operates an academy for children with special needs, provides emergency shelter for children whose custody is under dispute, and offers transitional housing for young women between the ages of 16 and 21.

But when the center opened in 1888 it was known as the St. Louis Colored Orphan’s Home. African American entrepreneur Annie Malone supported the home financially and served on the home’s board for decades. The orphanage was renamed the Annie Malone Home in 1946.

The Annie Malone Children and Family Center's administrative facility was built in 1922 to house orphans. Anne Malone donated $10,000 for its construction.
File Photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

“(Annie Malone) is one of the unsung stories in St. Louis,” Young said. “We ought to have a statue to her prowess. She was a woman before her time.”

Missouri History Museum curator Gwen Moore agrees with Young.  

“She was one of those people that I think contributed so much to the city of St. Louis and it pains me if people would only remember her as a name attached to the parade, as important as that parade is. I want people to remember that she did more,” said Moore, who has gathered a lot of information about Malone in her role as the museum’s curator of urban landscape and community identity.

“Annie Malone was the first self-made woman millionaire in the country,” Moore said. “Not just the first black millionaire in the country, but the first self-made (woman) millionaire, black or white. That’s quite the accomplishment for a woman who was orphaned at an early age and her parents were poor farmers.”

Annie Malone developed a natural hair care product for black women that straightened their hair without harsh chemicals. In 1902 she moved to St. Louis from Illinois and launched an entire product line called Poro that became an international business.

“She was a woman of means. She was a woman of substance in more ways than one,” Moore said. “She was a very complex woman of varied interests and she did a lot for her community. I think therein lies her real significance. She saw herself as a race woman and she saw her business as one way to help elevate black women.”

According to Moore, Annie Malone opened Poro College in north St. Louis in 1918, and taught African American women how to make and sell her products.  In 1927 Annie Malone’s husband filed for a divorce and fought for 50 percent of her business.

“Besides the fact that she was one of the richest black people in the country … she was an internationally known figure,” Moore said. “When she and Aaron Malone got divorced it made national headlines. The Post-Dispatch covered it. The Post-Dispatch usually in 1927 did not cover what was going on in the black community.”

After her divorce, Annie Malone moved to Chicago and restarted her business, although she lost some of her prominence and money. She died in 1957 with $100,000 to her name. Today her place in history is overshadowed by her student, Madam C. J. Walker.

Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson served as the grand marshal of the 2015 May Day Parade. 

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

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